Making Miliband prime minister will be a hard day’s night for Labour adviser says Euan McColm
THE record producer Sir George Martin is often described as the fifth Beatle and never as the eighth member of prog-rock band Stackridge.
This is because his working relationship with the former created a string of hit singles and albums that captured the imaginations of millions worldwide, while his dalliance with the latter unleashed the LP The Man In The Bowler Hat which, in 1974, crawled to number 23 in the album charts before slipping off to the obscurity in which it now deservedly languishes.
Sir George could offer advice, make suggestions, help shape the finished product, but those Beatles records are great, first and foremost, because the Beatles were great. So great, in fact, that when it comes to Sir George, we gloss over the whole Stackridge thing.
Like any successful mentor, Sir George had something to work with. And, having been associated with success, others wanted to work with him too.
There are parallels between Sir George and David Axelrod, the American political adviser hired last week – amid no small amount of publicity – by Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Axelrod’s previous experience includes working as campaign adviser to Barack Obama in 2008, when he won the US presidential election. Labour hopes that some of this campaigning magic will rub off on its man and help him defeat David Cameron in next year’s general election.
For a six-figure sum (think higher rather than lower) Axelrod will work alongside shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, the man in charge of Labour’s election strategy.
The appointment was, said Miliband, “excellent news”. He predicted that Axelrod would be a huge asset to Labour as it fought the Conservatives in 2015.
Axelrod said he had been struck by both the power of the leader of the opposition’s ideas and the strength of his vision. Labour members will have been particularly thrilled by Axelrod’s comparison between Miliband’s policies and those promoted by Obama in 2008. According to the strategist, both pitches to the electorate have at their hearts “the experience of everyday people”.
This is all very exciting for the card-carrying Labour member, I’m sure. After years of being outflanked by the Tories at Westminster and the SNP at Holyrood, a bit of the Obama campaign’s “Yes We Can” positivity must look awfully appealing.
But Labour should be wary of expecting too much of Axelrod. He may be a smart political strategist but he’s no miracle worker. Miliband may share some strategic thinking with Obama but there the similarities end. Obama – in 2008, especially – was an exciting, emerging political superstar.
In the weeks before he took office in 2009, Obama’s approval rating among the US electorate was an extraordinary 79 per cent. He hadn’t actually done anything at this point but the voters loved him. This was the political equivalent of Beatlemania.
A natural, confident performer, Obama was great raw material for the likes of Axelrod to work with. He already had the star quality to bring voters along with him, he just needed to be helped not to screw things up.
With little more than a year to go until the next general election, Miliband’s approval ratings continue to fall, and sit at 20 points. The Prime Minister – four years into an unpopular coalition with the Liberal Democrats – enjoys ratings of 27.
It appears that Labour’s lead over the Tories – 37 to 32, according to a poll by ICM last week – exists despite Miliband. Other polls in recent weeks have shown a Labour lead of as little as a single point.
When Axelrod worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign, he was advising perhaps the most charismatic international political figure since Bill Clinton. Now he’s going to advise a politician whose ability to connect with the electorate is in serious doubt. Obama was considered such an incredible dude that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize simply for existing. Miliband looks weird when he sips water.
There is certainly little concern in 10 Downing Street about Miliband’s decision to hire Axelrod. There are those around the Prime Minister who simply do not take Miliband seriously, and the news that he’d shelled out for Axelrod’s services was greeted by them with derision. “There are certain things,” said one, “that can’t be polished.”
Opponents may also take comfort from examples of Axelrod’s involvement with unsuccessful campaigns. He could not work miracles for US presidential hopeful Al Gore or former Italian prime minister Mario Monti, both of whom were defeated despite having Axelrod on board.
The appointment of an expensive foreign adviser may have given some in the Labour Party a psychological lift. Perhaps Axelrod is some kind of answer to the Tories’ high-profile campaign strategist, the Australian Lynton Crosby.
But what exactly Axelrod is expected to do with the material available to him is a mystery. Miliband has already proved that he understands issues that matter to voters. His promise of price caps on energy bills under the next Labour government and a pledge to build tens of thousands of new houses are two good examples of the Labour leader getting the public mood right.
There is a difference, however, between voters considering a politician’s ideas worthwhile and them considering the politician in question worthy of high office. And this, surely, is where Axelrod will meet his most difficult challenge.
Cameron may not be the most popular prime minister in living memory but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to seem more prime ministerial than Ed Miliband.
Axelrod might be able to help finesse the very finest political operators and he may have an uncanny knack for reading the public mood, but questions remain over whether his new employer will ever be considered a credible candidate to be prime minister.
Miliband has yet to unleash his inner superstar, which leads me to suspect it doesn’t exist. David Axelrod’s previous boss was a bona fide superstar. Ed Miliband, however, is more Stackridge than Beatles. «