Saturday, May 08, 2010

Let the recriminations begin

It's not news that American political consultants have a nice side business working on UK political campaigns. After all, it's the same language and kinda sorta the same voting system, so it should be easy, right? Indeed, in the 2005 UK election we had the spectacle of "Democratic" consultant Karen Hicks selling a Rovian core vote strategy to Labour, the case study for its application being Rochdale where the Labour candidate, er, lost.

Fast forward now to 2010 and of course they were all still at it. The BBC even had Frank Luntz -- between stints poll-testing Republican spin to oppose financial sector reform -- doing his instant focus group analysis of the debates. Anyway,consider this nice use of the passive voice from today's Times (UK) Cameron post-mortem --

Behind-the-scenes anecdotes are starting to emerge. One records how Bill Knapp, the US political consultant hired to help Mr Cameron, had a simple question on the eve of the vital second television debate. What research had been done into what voters thought of the Tory campaign’s key theme of the Big Society? The answer was an embarrassed silence. When results from a hurriedly convened focus group detailed a negative reaction at a subsequent meeting, Mr Hilton is said to have stormed out.

Hmmm. Anecdote portraying Bill Knapp as the wise outsider ... Who might possibly be the source for this tale ... Bill Knapp?

And there's another problem. The timeline doesn't add up. The second debate was 22 April. Ipsos-Mori had a full poll out on the 21st noting the lukewarm voter reaction to the Big Society concept (not least because it sounded like more work), no "hurriedly convened focus group" required. And if the poll was released on the 21st, the issue had to be have been out there long before then.

"Big Society" is indeed a strange political example. Read the original speech. If you think that voters were crying out for an application of Elinor Ostrom's ideas to their daily lives, this thing was indeed a winner. But did we need someone who just stepped out of Club World to tell us that there might be a problem?

The lesson is that while it's not clear what exactly US political consultants know about UK politics, they do know to run to the nearest hack with a juicy leak once things go pear-shaped. Get ready for more of these tales over the next few days.

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