Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Labor isn't working

In a series of posts during the UK general election last year, we noted the infestation of American pollsters in the campaign and the phenomenon of American reporters travelling to Britain to interview American pollsters to provide insights for their election coverage. Spring junkets for pollsters prescribing the Karl Rove tactic of motivating the base, which at least in one case didn't work, which didn't stop the King of All Yankee Pollsters, Mark Penn, saying that the lesson learned was the importance of doing more than just motivating the base.

Well, the bill came in some time ago, but it has now become public:

As both parties were seeking loans from wealthy backers to avoid being outspent, Labour paid £530,372 to Mark Penn, a Washington-based adviser to Hillary Clinton, and the Tories handed £441,146 to Lynton Crosby, their Australian guru. The parties’ spending on the most expensive election in modern times — the Tories spent £17.85 million and Labour £17.94 million — was rewarded with the second-lowest turnout of 61.3 per cent ... Mr Penn was hired to run secret polling of British voters from his company’s call centre in Denver while he stayed at the Waldorf Hotel in London and advised Tony Blair, The Times has learnt ... Mr Penn, 51, who was revealed by The Times this year to be the brains behind Labour’s election slogan “Forward Not Back”, is credited with masterminding Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. He is retained by Labour for an unknown sum and recently visited London to advise senior figures on tactics for next month’s local elections. His company, Penn Schoen & Berland, recently opened an office in London and recruited Matt Carter, the former Labour general-secretary, to run it.

Mr Penn is considered an expert in the use of “message polling” — calling sample voters in target areas to find out and test the exact campaigning message that will secure their vote. After the election, Mr Blair sent him a signed photograph declaring: “Mark, you were brilliant. Thank you.”

A couple of points. First, there shouldn't be any puzzlement at the link between vast cheques for consultants and low turnout. Low turnout is a key plank in the Rove strategy, for the simple reason that it magnifies the effect of any votes from your own side that you do manage to motivate. But it's a risky strategy in close races, as Florida 2000 showed, and while it may win elections, it's not necessarily a mandate to govern, as George Bush is now finding out. Second, anyone disgusted with what these consultants have wrought needs to look at Kos's book, which explains in detail what these same consultants -- and we mean the exact same people -- have done to the Democratic party.

These effects combined make the case for some kind of spending limitations. The inevitable consultant arms race leads to a campaign characterized by seemingly bland slogans at the national level (nothing that will motivate the other side) coupled with a blizzard of dubious polling tactics in swing constituencies ("how you would feel about candidate X if you knew he ate babies for breakfast?"). And without the suits sitting in Club World and checking in at the Waldorf, you could still have some good fun for modest amounts of money:

Labour’s clothing claims reveal a different emphasis. An invoice from Mad World Ltd charged the party £299.63 for six Star Trek costumes, all complete with ears. They are understood to be half a dozen “Mr Spock” outfits for party volunteers to wear and chase John Redwood, the Conservative MP for Wokingham and former Shadow Secretary for Deregulation, who has earned the nickname “the Vulcan” after the television character.

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