In the London mayoral elections of both 2008 and 2012, one of the main reasons Labour lost when it could well have won was that the party and its supporters quite simply refused to engage with reality.
There were plenty of true and serious arguments they could have made against Boris Johnson. Instead, they claimed that he was a racist, an elitist, a member of the “Tory hard right,” “George W.Boris,” “Norman Tebbit in a clown’s uniform,” and so on, themes without any credibility or traction among the vast majority of voters.
Now the architect of those two against-the-odds mayoral victories, Lynton Crosby, has been asked to see if he can pull off a similar trick for the Tory re-election effort in 2015. And in their reactions to the news, the left – along with some Tories – appear to be suffering the same fatal lack of contact with the real world. Crosby, according to this necessarily anonymous crowd, is a fanatic who will bully a helpless Prime Minister into a right-wing, immigration-led “dog-whistle” campaign aimed at the core vote.
There is no doubt that Crosby is personally quite right-wing. Horrors! And God forbid that anyone should talk about immigration – it’s not as if any voter cares about that, is it? But I’ve never heard him say anything even remotely racist. And the caricature of the one-note “dog-whistler” does not survive thirty seconds’ examination of the campaigns Crosby actually ran for Boris.
Boris simply could not have won either of his election victories on the basis of hard-right or core-vote pitches. In lefty, liberal London there isn’t anything like a big enough Tory core vote. Boris’s campaigns – run by Lynton Crosby – were broad and catholic. Johnson won, both times, because he and Lynton Crosby secured the votes of hundreds of thousands of people who would ordinarily vote Labour or Lib Dem.
In 2008, for instance, Johnson’s supposed “dog-whistle” campaign included supporting an amnesty for illegal immigrants – something far to the left of even current Labour policy. It is alleged that in the 2012 election, Boris “lurched to the right on immigration, making it a campaign issue.” It is true that Boris gave one interview in which he urged ministers to “get a grip” on immigration. (How unreasonable!) But he did not make it a campaign issue against Ken Livingstone and immigration barely featured in the campaign.
In his exciting role as the spider at the centre of the web, Crosby is also alleged by one journalist to have been behind the stories that did so much damage to Ken in 2008 and 2012: the scandal at the London Development Agency, and the great man’s tax avoidance. I was the reporter who broke both stories, and I did not get either of them from Lynton Crosby or anyone connected to the campaign. I actually got them both from, you know, investigative journalism, developing sources, Companies House trawls of Ken’s personal company accounts, and so on. It does still happen! My LDA stories kicked off in early December 2007, almost a month before Lynton Crosby even joined the Boris campaign. And in 2012, not until weeks after my tax story, published in February, did Team Johnson decide to go heavy on it. Livingstone was always keener on negative campaigning than Johnson ever was.
In February, indeed, Boris was still barely campaigning at all. Various anonymous ex-City Hall staff have claimed that Johnson would have done better in 2012 had he taken less notice of Crosby and reached out to unsympathetic groups. The fact, however, is that until Lynton Crosby took full control of the campaign, Boris was losing. Polls put him behind, or level with, Ken. As I put it in the Spectator in March:
“Boris’s City Hall staff tried to position him as almost a non-political figure…he spent a lot of time opening things and making jolly, small and medium-sized announcements about subjects that don’t matter to most voters.
“One day last year, as Labour was campaigning hard on violent crime, which had just started to tug faintly in the wrong direction, I looked on the City Hall website and found that Boris had been… er…“meeting Peter Andre to help recruit Reading Ambassadors” and…well… “joining his Street Party Ambassador, Barbara Windsor, at the ‘Big Lunch’ festivities on the South Bank.” The top item on the website’s front page was “London’s bees are in trouble. Find out how you can help them.”
“Incumbents lose when they get too wrapped up in the administrative and adulatory aspects of the job and forget the politics. Livingstone lost [in 2008] when he majored on what, for voters, are second-order issues like the environment, while having nothing to say about transport or crime. That’s not a mistake he’s making now. But throughout January, as Ken made headway with a simple, populist – if totally fraudulent – pledge to cut Tube fares, Team Boris allowed its opponent the pitch.”
As soon as Crosby took full control of the campaign, Boris started campaigning – and winning. The real secret of Livingstone’s failure was not the baroque conspiracies his supporters always try to weave around Crosby, the Evening Standard, negative campaigning and various other excuses: it was that Ken was unfit to be elected. And the real secret of Crosby’s success is not his supposed blowing of the dog-whistle. (How revealing that phrase is of some liberals’ contempt for ordinary voters, by the way, seeing them as animals who can be whistled to heel.)
Crosby’s most valuable skill, as even his opponents agree, is the ability to instil direction and confidence. And God knows, the Tories need some of that.