Tim Dunlop blogs about the influence of Howard government “black arts” gurus Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor on British Tory election campaigning:
Sorry, but it’s a crock. I mean, far be it from me to defend Lynton Crosby, and I’m sure he is organising such a campaign, but in so doing he is not bringing anything new to British politics, merely tapping into a rich strand already present. …
The fact is, British politicians are old hands at playing the race card and they didn’t need Lynton Crosby to teach them anything.
The last sentence is tritely true, but the rest of Tim’s post completely misses the point of what it is that Crosby-Textor actually do:
- They develop, test and refine both positive and negative campaiging messages (frequently but not necessarily involving race) using focus groups and similar methods;
- They articulate those messages into sophisticated macro (mass media and parliamentary) and micro (subterranean direct mail, telephone and door-to-door, and “push-polling”) tactics, the latter being especially targetted at marginal seats because of the highly labour-intensive nature of the tactics (hence some initial tensions between Crosby-Textor and former Tory spin guru Lord Saatchi about the number of seats that should be targetted);
- All this is driven by extremely sophisticated Voter Tracking Software fuelled by a massive data collection effort linking local candidates and electoral offices, telephone polling organisations, and continuous tracking of voter opinion as expressed in mass media (and presumably blogs). This aspect is well explained in a paper by Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington titled Voter Tracking Software: the Dark Side of Technology and Democracy;
- Finally (and just as critically) you need a party leader capable of staying “on-message” in a relentless and disciplined way. John Howard, grey, colourless, deeply compromised and battle-scarred as he may be, is the ideal warrior for this sort of battle. Kim Beazley might have what it takes, if he can stop waffling and use short sentences and words of no more than three syllables. Mark Latham was far too mercurial and undisciplined, which is probably why he attempted a Dick Morris-inspired Third Way strategy. But that requires a politician with the rare highwire artistry of a Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.
Crosby and Textor are bringing something new to British politics. They’re bringing a highly evolved, extraordinarily sophisticated, utterly cynical, proven election winning package, every single element of which is critical to its success. I suspect that the Tories are too far behind, and need to pick up too many seats, to be able to win the forthcoming British election, but I also suspect they’ll come a lot closer than most people currently expect.
Labor strategists understand the nature and scope of the Federal Coalition’s current electoral advantage, and are working to bridge it (moreover the times won’t always be as kind to Howard as they’ve been at the last two elections). But it seems few members of the commentariat have any idea at all, and that includes the usually perspicacious Tim Dunlop.
PS – For anyone who suggests that the ALP also possesses and practises all the above dot point strategies, you’re right. But it’s the way you put them together that counts, and the Coalition has had a decisive advantage until now on both dot points 1 and 4. Howard has been superior to both Beazley and Latham at staying relentlessly on message, and has all but eliminated the principled, liberal elements of the Coalition, thereby allowing Crosby and Textor to develop the most politically effective messages with a ruthlessly cynical lack of ethical restriction that Labor can’t match. Fortunately Labor probably doesn’t need to go that far (or God help liberal democracy), because Howard has been assisted by the temper of the times in a way that surely won’t continue.