by Jonathan Manthorpe in Vancouver, British Columbia
It would give me great pleasure to write with confidence that the ‘Lizard of Oz’ has lost his touch — that the politics of fear, hatred and division is dead.
Certainly, the once highly successful campaign tactics of Australian conservative strategist Sir Lynton Crosby have taken a drubbing in recent contests.
The May 5 victory of Muslim politician Sadiq Khan in the election for mayor of London is being touted widely as a conclusive defeat for the Crosby doctrine. Crosby’s campaign strategy company worked for the failed Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith, and is being credited with trying to sink Khan by linking him with Muslim extremists.
Crosby also was accused of leading Stephen Harper’s Conservatives into the politics of fear by pushing such wedge issues as the niqab to the fore in the 2015 election. Harper and the Tories, of course, came a cropper and were conclusively defeated by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
These outcomes raise questions about Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency in the United States, and the rise of right wing political movements in Europe in response to the influx of refugees from the Middle East. Is there a cliff edge in western democracies — all of which are essentially social democrat at the core — beyond which right wing hardliners and merchants of fear fall off into oblivion?
Crosby is a tempting piece of litmus paper to use to test this proposition, since the stoking of anti-Muslim sentiments and other wedge issues has been a hallmark of his campaign style. His company, the Crosby-Textor Group, is an international operation that has run conservative election campaigns in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Sri Lanka.
Crosby undoubtedly has finely-honed skills as an analyst of public opinion polls and conductor of focus groups. He has a record of identifying key segments of the electorate and herding them in whichever direction he chooses by playing up wedge issues — “dog-whistle” politics.
What stands out in Crosby’s record, however, is less his mastery of the dark electoral arts and more his skill in picking clients who are probably going to win an election with or without him.
Crosby’s reputation was built on managing successful campaigns for Australia’s Liberal Party (actually a conservative party) and Prime Minister John Howard in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004. As a result, Crosby was wooed to Britain to manage the Conservatives’ campaign against the Labour government of Tony Blair in 2005. The result was disastrous for the Tories — even though Crosby tried playing the race card and exploiting unwarranted public fears about crime, tactics that had worked so well for him in Australia. One of his slogans was: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.”
Since that debacle, Crosby has been far more careful about the jobs he takes on. He ran Boris Johnson’s campaign for mayor of London in 2008 and his successful re-election bid in 2012. But Johnson is a well-known public figure who draws enormous public affection (despite his spectacular character defects), so Crosby was on to a sure thing.
Crosby’s wariness of associating himself with the unelectable can be seen clearly in his dealings with the Harper Conservatives’ campaign last year.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said now that Canadian voters were never going to re-elect Harper and the Conservatives. Indeed, it was probably an accident that voters gave Harper a majority in 2011. After the departure of Jean Chrétien, many voters were only waiting for the Liberal party to get its act together. Crosby’s company fiercely denied it had any association with the Harper campaign, and was especially vehement in denying that Crosby spent any time in Canada during the campaign.
Something similar went on with Sadiq Khan’s election earlier this month as mayor of London. Zac Goldsmith, the dilettante millionaire son of a billionaire (alleged) corporate raider, Sir James Goldsmith, was well down the list of people the Tories wanted to run against the Labour Party’s Khan. London is a Labour stronghold and it takes a special kind of Tory, such as Boris Johnson, to get Londoners to abandon the voting habits of generations.
Khan was born in south London in 1970, the son of a bus driver immigrant from Pakistan and his seamstress wife. Khan grew up on a public housing estate, but went to law school and joined a practice specializing in human rights cases. He was elected a municipal councillor on the Labour ticket in 1994 and was elected the Member of Parliament for the same district in 2005. He was a minister in the ill-fated Labour government of Gordon Brown and, after the Tory-Liberal-Democrat alliance victory in 2010, a senior member of the opposition shadow cabinet.
He is a tried, tested and well-known professional politician. That Khan is also a Muslim is of far less significance than the rest of the bullet points on his CV.
Goldsmith has the distinction of having been expelled for drug use from Eton College, the top private school where Prime Minister David Cameron and several of his ministers were also educated. After scrambling to finish his schooling, Goldsmith, who showed a youthfully romantic interest in the environment, was given the magazine The Ecologist to run by his uncle. Goldsmith ran it into the ground and ended up selling the publication for the equivalent of $1.50. In 2010 he ran successfully for Parliament, but was given no cabinet post.
Both before and throughout the campaign for mayor, Goldsmith showed no lust for the job or enthusiasm for the process of trying to get it. More than that, he had almost nothing to say on the bread-and-butter issues that rile Londoners, especially the sky-high cost of housing. (Given his financial status, Goldsmith’s silence on that point may have been wise.)
Khan, in contrast, produced an in-depth housing policy. It would require developers to include 50 per cent “affordable” housing in all new developments and would allow foreign buyers to buy only new houses or apartments. No gobbling up of tear-downs for Russian oligarchs, Gulf oil sheikhs or Chinese Communist Party princes.
Crosby clearly saw this train wreck coming and refused to get involved in Goldsmith’s campaign. But he was cajoled into doing so. Perhaps he was driven by loyalty to the Conservative government at Westminster, which he helped back to power in last year’s general election and which recommended him for a knighthood this year “for political service.”
Even so, Crosby did not manage Goldsmith’s campaign himself. He assigned that task to one of his deputies, Mark Fullbrook. It was Fullbrook who reportedly took the Goldsmith campaign on its highly controversial turn by accusing Khan of associating with radical Muslims, and questioning whether London would be safe from terrorism with Khan at the helm. The slurs didn’t stick because they lacked substance.
The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is not as clear-cut as either the Canadian or London elections. Clinton has the advantage on governmental experience, but is hampered by what many see as an unattractive and untrustworthy personality. Trump seems to have tapped into a rich seam of antipathy towards Muslim and Hispanic minorities. Probably more important, he is appealing to a deep well of anger harboured by low-income white people against the professional political class and all its works.
It’s highly unlikely that Crosby would ever be offered a role in the U.S. presidential campaign. If he was, he’d probably sit this one out.
Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” published by Palgrave-Macmillan. He has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. He was European bureau chief for the Toronto Star and then Southam News in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In 1989 he was appointed Africa correspondent by Southam News and in 1993 was posted to Hong Kong to cover Asia. For the last few years he has been based in Vancouver, writing international affairs columns for what is now the Postmedia Group. He left the group last year and now writes for a range of newspapers and websites.
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca