LONDON – Setting up an intriguing election battle, Britain’s opposition Labor Party announced Friday that it had hired President Obama’s chief campaign advisor to help the party return to power next year over the ruling Conservatives.
The decision to recruit David Axelrod means that the 2015 British election will pit two of Obama’s strategists against each other. Working for the Conservatives is Jim Messina, who, like Axelrod, toiled on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns and who served as his deputy White House chief of staff during his first term.
“David is used to tough fights, and he is going to be a huge asset to our campaign,” Douglas Alexander, Labor’s election coordinator, said in a statement on Axelrod’s hiring. “In the United States, he showed that a campaign guided by progressive values, mobilizing grassroots supporters and funded by small donations could win.”
The Labor Party, which governed for 13 years before being ousted by the Tories in 2010, has consistently been ahead in the polls in recent months. But in a boost for the Conservatives, the British economy is rebounding more strongly from recession than originally expected. Voters also routinely rate David Cameron, the polished, articulate prime minister, more favorably than they do Labor leader Ed Miliband, who strikes many Britons as too inexperienced and off-puttingly nerdy.
Miliband is trying to improve his image by promoting himself as a vocal champion of the squeezed middle class and as a critic of Britain’s widening income gap. In a video message to the Labor faithful, Axelrod said he emphasized those themes for Obama as his chief campaign advisor in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.
“The eyes of the world will be on Britain in 2015 … because of the contest between ideas about what a healthy economy looks like in the 21st century,” Axelrod said. “Ed Miliband understands that a healthy economy is one where hard-working people are rewarded for their work, where you can stay ahead of those cost-of-living pressures, where you can plan for your futures and hope for your children.”
The British media reported that Axelrod – whom the Labor Party website briefly identified as “David Alexrod” before correcting the error – would participate in regular strategy meetings with Labor officials and earn a six-figure sum for his pains.
Trying to outfox him will be Messina, whom Cameron hired last summer. Axelrod’s former Obama campaign teammate is known for his data-crunching and social-media campaign expertise.
That two Democratic operatives would be recruited by opposing parties in Britain, one of which uses the word “conservative” in its name, is not particularly strange. The Tories are not precise analogues of Republicans in the United States; the British political spectrum skews further to the left than the American one, meaning that the Conservatives overlap with Democrats on some issues. For example, Cameron’s government recently steered legislation authorizing same-sex marriage through Parliament.
Also, political strategists have flitted back and forth across the Atlantic before. James Carville, who helped lift Bill Clinton to the presidency, advised Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister from 1997 to 2007.