Of woods and trees

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Point taken, Ken. Still, it seems to me that both Mark and Prescott were suggesting that it was the element of the exploitation of race-based issues that was the essence of what Crosby was bringing to the party and less the sophistication of how they were doing it. So I think the point I made was worth making, though as I say, your point is well taken.

I might add, although I haven’t followed it closely, that British Labour themselves have not been backward in coming forward in targetting asylum seekers for political advantage (I’m thinking of some comments and policies attributed to Blunkett) so there might be more than a whiff of hypocrisy in Prescott’s comments. Imagine!

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Crosby and Textor were in WA, and a fat lot of good it did the Liberals there. They started the campaign with a healthy lead and ended up losing easily.

That doesn’t mean that good software and good advertising don’t help. They do. But that is all sizzle. The sausage is the leader, the party, their track record, the credibility of their promises and how this stacks up compared to the other side.

Like all supposed PR gurus, it is in Crosby and Textor’s commercial interests to make people think they are geniuses who can work their magic and turn black into white. No doubt they are good at what they do. Whether they make any appreciable difference is doubtful.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Dave

You make a valid point, in that it’s possible to overstate the influence of gurus like Crosby and Textor, on the “you can’t turn shit into clay” principle. But I also think you’re underestimating their effectiveness. It’s somewhere between evil messiah and no appreciable difference, but more important than most members of the commentariat typically acknowledge IMO. I don’t know whether they were in WA recently or not, but if they were it was for a very short time. The sorts of strategies I outlined above take much longer to develop than they could possibly have spent in WA given their current UK commitments.

John Morhall
John Morhall
2022 years ago

The WA Liberal campaign was not only bereft of the influence of any ‘black art’ gurus, it was apparently bereft of any guru input. Barnett’s lemming like leap into the canal of despond would have unwound any positive influences generated by Crosby and Textor.

liam hogan
2022 years ago

I suspect that voluntary voting in the UK might make a lot of Crosby & Textor’s methods a bit moot. For the tories, the problem isn’t convincing people to vote for them above Labour, it’s convincing them to vote at all.
Labour do quite well mobilising people, I’m not sure how focus grouping will help with that.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Liam

Crosby-Textor’s methodology is adapted from US Republican strategies of the late 1980s and early 90s, a system also characterised by voluntary voting. In some respects voluntary voting actually enhances the potential effectiveness of black arts techniques, because one of the main aims becomes to get soft supporters of your opponent so disillusioned and disgusted by both sides that they don’t bother to vote at all.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Crosby wasn’t seen as any kind of genius pre-1996.
nor was he again in 1998 when howard believed on election night he would be a oncer.

similarly Textor has merely ridden along the same wave.

I am by no means saying that either are hopeless merely they have had the luck to be at the right place at the right time.

My guess is they will be again credited with their ‘political’ nous after May however Bill Hayden’s drover’s dog ( Lord Paddy of Balmain?) could gain a decent swing in the UK at present.

C.L.
2022 years ago

The Australian labour movement is still trying to ban Chinamen from coming to Australia. John Howard’s fault I suppose.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

The only ‘race card’ being played is the false accusation that conservative parties are somehow playing a ‘race card’.

Wayne Errington
Wayne Errington
2022 years ago

In terms of bringing the various parts of the campaign together, Ken, the advantages of incumbency are crucial. It will be interesting to see how well the Tories do from opposition. I don’t think there is anything about campaigning that New Labour hasn’t already mastered, indeed laid on too think at times. I’m sure that Crosby and Textor Inc. are enjoying all the publicity, nevertheless.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

I used to work for a coalition MP.

Feedback is very useful, but it has substantial design flaws. Essentially it takes far more effort to feed than it should. This raises the barrier to data entry, which means that the data held is not as rich, and not as timely, as it could be.

It also provides zero support for what I came to see as a leading role for backbench MPs: mediating between constituents and the Executive. The mention of an MP’s name strikes a strange terror into the heart of all kinds of otherwise intransigent bureaucrats. All sorts of issues, which have previously been stuck in limbo for months, suddenly become solvent and are solved in days.

As I said, this process is not supported by Feedback.

That said, software is a “force multiplyer”. It does not do anything that a good office can’t do without it. Its role is simply to make it a bit easier. Feedback is better than “nothing”, but it’s only as half as useful as it could be.

I briefly toyed with developing a competitive package, however the Australian market is too small for it to be worth my while.

liam hogan
2022 years ago

Jacques, for once I agree with you.
The ALP has a constituent database similar to Feedback, onto which staffers seem to project all their hopes and faith, as if a few search queries and targetted letters could solve the problem of declining political participation in society. It’s a crazy system.
Voluntary voting, I suspect, would increase the dependence of the two major parties on their databases, though it might make them a bit more efficient at using them.

mark
2022 years ago

Well, the knees of two beloved right-wing commentors certainly jerked good and hard here. So, fellows, what’s the verdict? Did Ken successfully troll our easily-abbreviated friends, or did he skillfully hit a nerve?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

I didn’t even mention the “race card” myself. I just quoted TD talking about it, but for a quite different purpose. I do find it distasteful, however, and I don’t see how anyone as intelligent as CL could seriously deny that Michael Howard’s campaign is playing it for all their worth. But that wasn’t the point of my post and I’m not really interested in discussing it. Presumably CL and EP (who also isn’t illiterate – just obsessed) didn’t feel like engaging with the topic of the post (as is their right), preferring an irrelevant sideswipe that required no thought whatever.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

What’s the point of discussing the obvious? Political parties have been using those techniques for decades. I’ve used them myself.

Far more interesting for me is the mindless assumption that any debate about immigration must necessarily involve a “race card”. That’s a meme that should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.