A snog for Crosby, a crate of champagne for Karl Rove – how the Tories swift-boated Labour

by Steve Morgan

In the month since its defeat in the general election Labour has been flagellating itself mercilessly over why it lost. The wrong policies, the wrong leader, the wrong campaign manager and ironically this last week it has had to suffer a bunch of think tanks run by middle class north Londoners telling Labour it was too London-centric and middle class.

Whilst these factors may well have contributed to Labour’s defeat, Labour lost because the Conservatives won. The Conservatives won because a little known Australian strategist introduced the real dark arts of American politics to the UK.

The main question Labour should be asking itself now is not, what did we do wrong, but what did the Conservatives do right.

At lunchtime on Election day November 4th 2004 I sat in Sen. John Kerry’s Boston election campaign HQ with his other campaign staff. As with the Gore campaign four years earlier I had spent much of that year in the US helping mobilise the 4 million plus ex-pat vote for the democratic ticket.  That day we were watching Sen. Ted Kennedy on national TV telling America what a Kerry presidency was going to be like. All the midday polls had the Democrats between 8-10 points ahead. Ten hours later Kerry conceded defeat. The genius that was Karl Rove had done it again, Bush remained President.

The two Bush victories were achieved despite the popularity of Democrat policies. Bush won because Karl Rove was a shrewder strategist, better organiser and far more ruthless than anyone on the Democratic side. While conducting below the radar tactics that have since become known as the wedge and dog whistle strategies Rove used Bush surrogates to publicly launch an endless number of personal attacks on Gore and Kerry. Gore was wooden, lacked personality, was indecisive and prone to over exaggerate his achievements. Kerry was a leftie liberal from a rich family, he didn’t understand hard working Americans, he ‘flip flopped’ on all the major issues and he was no war hero as he claimed.

Throughout both campaigns Republicans repeated these claims time and time again. Attacks on Kerry were particularly ruthless. In 2005 the University of Minnesota published a study showing that 80% of the Republican messaging was negative attacks on Kerry. In contrast the Democrats only attacked Bush 20% of the time.  They had a plan, it was to keep pushing their policies.

Both Gore and Kerry contributed strategically to their own down fall. Gore by refusing to campaign on the Democrats impressive economic record under Clinton. Because this would associate him too closely with Clinton who was by then embroiled in sex scandals.

Kerry’s team made the strategic decision not to respond to the Republican attacks on him, never mind attack Bush in a similar way. Consequently, when the Republicans launched Swift Boat Veterans For Truth against Kerry to undermine Kerry’s military service, a lynch pin of his campaign, it took three weeks for his campaign to respond. By which time incalculable damage had been done to his reputation.

To work, a wedge strategy has to divide the electorate, primarily around its inherent fears. To varying degrees Rove focused on the US fear factors of religion, abortion and homophobia. While subliminally stoking up the divisions in US society on these issues Rove overtly smeared both Democrats as heavily pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and of unconvincing religious beliefs.

Another formidable Republican strategist Frank Luntz, the master of language delivery and talking points, had in the 1990s established that if a campaign was well disciplined and focused on the same phraseology at every opportunity then eventually that language would become the norm, especially with the press.

In this way many non- partisan issues could be turned to the republican’s advantage. For example, when the Republicans wanted to repeal the Estate (inheritance) Tax Luntz concluded it would be difficult to rally voters around something as  unemotive as an Estate Tax.  But a tax on death, now that was another matter and so the Death Tax was born and eventually reformed.

Continuously attaching your opponents name to issues voters were worried about was another Luntz mantra. So, from every Republican’s lips the energy crisis became the Democrats energy crisis. The law to allow gay marriage in Massachusetts where Kerry was Senator became Kerry’s Gay Law, and so on. These tactics were all choreographed carefully and delivered with precision and conviction as a result President Bush served two full terms in the White House

What went wrong for Labour on May 7th? All of the above and more. It started when the Conservatives hired the ‘Australian Karl Rove’ Lynton Crosby. Crosby would instinctively want to execute some kind of US wedge strategy on the Labour party. All he needed was a gutsy Conservative leader with enough vision to let him do it. When he sat down with Cameron and Osborne he found two. The question they would have faced at that time was how. No doubt there were a number of scenarios in play when the SNP surge and the opinion polls showing a hung parliament dropped nicely into their lap.

Their strategy started in earnest when Cameron refused to do the live debates against Miliband. Cameron taking this stance in the face of everything he had previously said about the live debates and with the opinion polls not in his favour took incredible courage.

It was undoubtedly a testament to his faith in Crosby’s strategy.  Cameron is afraid to debate with Ed cried the Labour party. That was impossible to believe, something else was obviously happening. Whatever that was remained unclear even when Cameron insisted that the Greens and Nationalists must be in any live debate. It only became obvious when that first debate took place and Sturgeon won. The politics of fear essential to a wedge strategy had begun. All of a sudden voters became worried that the wild eyed scots would be running a minority Labour government. That worry was to be exploited to the full.

It was imperative to Crosby’s strategy that the SNP be given a national platform in that first debate. Cameron played an Oscar winning role in helping him achieve that. Without the SNP there was no bogey man (or woman) to instil into the electorate the anxiety Crosby needed for his strategy to work. Most of the country was aware of the increase in support for the SNP but until that debate had little idea how imposing Sturgeon was. Crosby had calculated that once she become a national figure the Conservatives could start sowing seeds of uncertainty and unease into the minds of undecided voters. Unease and uncertainty that helped ensure Labour failed to win a swathe of very marginal seats across middle England as voters stuck with their incumbent Conservative MPs.

Whether intentional or not, Crosby’s strategy also had the added bonus of handing the Conservatives many Liberal Democrat seats as the floating voters they had always depended upon haemorrhaged away from the already disconsolate Liberal Democrats to keep the SNP out.

In both his presidential campaigns George Bush repeatedly refused to talk in detail about his economic policies on radio and TV. On one occasion when asked about an academic critique of his social security programme on breakfast television he smiled and said, ‘I won’t talk about that because I have not read it.’  The report said his social security cuts would be severe. Nevertheless, that was his reply on all the networks until they stopped asking him. At the same time Dick Cheney and other senior Republicans were making deeply personal attacks on Gore and then Kerry at every opportunity. It was a constant and coordinated tactic by the Republicans to avoid too much scrutiny of their policies while discrediting the personal credibility of the Democratic candidates

Move the clock forward to 2015 and the Conservatives are calling the 2008 global crash ‘Labour’s Crash’. By the beginning of April nearly all the media platforms are also calling it that. By mid-April Miliband was actually apologising for it; and so it entered the psyche of the voters. Unbelievably for a British election, time and time again on national broadcast media we saw a British chancellor and a secretary of state for work and pensions refusing to give details of their proposed post-election spending cuts. Simultaneously, other prominent Conservatives began attacking Miliband’s character culminating in a ruthless personal attack on him by the secretary of state for defence. Meanwhile, the spectre of the northern hordes descending on Westminster with Nicola, Queen of Scots at their head continued to grow.  There should be no illusion that these were unconnected actions. They were timed to perfection and implemented with a ruthlessness previously unseen in a British election. No wonder the Labour party was overwhelmed.

Where does Labour go from here? On current form even further into the mire. If all they have to offer is navel gazing analysis of what they think they did wrong and a ‘ defeat taskforce ‘ to help them decide what they have to offer the electorate next time to put it right, then they should be preparing for a long time in opposition. History is full of losers with the best ideas, the best thinkers, the best troops and the wrong strategy. Their only hope is that a leader emerges that understands that a plan is not a strategy and that policies have little impact if the electorate is listening to something else.

What happened on May 7th was a magnificently executed strategy by the Conservatives. It required an unprecedented level of discipline and coordination from senior members of the Cabinet and a prime minister with the courage to see it through. With Crosby at the helm, for good or bad, they have changed the nature of electioneering in the UK for ever. He deserves his snog from George Osborne!

Steve Morgan is a communications consultant working in the UK and US

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5 Responses to “A snog for Crosby, a crate of champagne for Karl Rove – how the Tories swift-boated Labour”

  1. Tony says:

    Clearly, there were many problems with Labour’s campaign and its behaviour for the previous 5 years.

    How did Miliband react, for example, to the disgusting attack on him by Fallon?
    Incredibly, it was to praise his (non-existent) ‘decency’. This is pure Dukakis from 1988.

    The Labour campaign was very defensive in nature. In that situation, the best you can hope for is a draw.

    Drew Westen “The Political Brain” is a must read book.

  2. Ex labour says:

    whilst I agree with some of this analysis, it seems to indicate if you read between the lines, that Labours leadership and policies were right, but they got the strategy and tactics wrong. This is palpable nonsense as there was much wrong with policy, people and presentation.

    It would take pages to spell all this out, and to be frank much of it has been said all ready. There is no one reason for failure in my opinion, but many which when combined made Labour unelectable. Fundamentally they did not engage with the publics issues choosing to speak to their core vote, or what was deemed the core vote instead. All this with a leader who was comfortable with this echo chamber politics where like minded individuals reinforced each other’s belief.

    Crosby may be a master of the dark arts as you portray him, but Labours choices between 2010 and 2015 didn’t make it difficult for him.

  3. David Bouvier says:

    Blaming the nasty Tories for winning when Labour was “better” if only in their own estimation is a popular activist conceit. What you are really doing is blaming the electorate.

    Sure Labour’s campaign was poor but this seems to have been a reflection of Milliband’s character. As was the patronising populism of their policy agenda. Sure Crosby is a marksman but Labour provided a “target rich environment”. Fish in a barrel.

  4. scrat says:

    Labour lost because it failed to offer any real alternative vision for Britain in order to create a fair and decent society, it bleated nonsense, mostly tory lite and it didn’t even have the spine to oppose austerity.

  5. Nick says:

    “Labour lost because the Conservatives won.” With depth of insight like that, I’m surprised Mr Morgan isn’t running his own successful agency!

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