Crosby/Textor: David Cameron’s dark masters of dogwhistle politics

[First published in The Morning Star, 24/11/2012]

Britain teeters on the brink of a “triple-dip recession,” or what non-economists might simply call a depression.

The government’s reneging on council funding has slashed budgets in the most deprived areas by more than 14 per cent, with the promise of more cuts to come.

The cannibalisation of the NHS continues, an unregulated energy and housing market risks people dying in the cold in droves and the Tories’ latest sop to the reactionary law-and-order demographic – the police and crime commissioners – is seemingly the only thing less popular than their own coalition partners.

A lot could happen in the next two years, but none of it looks good.

Which is presumably why David Cameron’s office last week quietly hired Lynton Crosby of the notorious Australian firm Crosby Textor to coddle him all the way to 2015’s general election.

But Crosby Textor are more than campaign strategists. They are sorcerers, summoning humanity’s worst instincts seemingly out of thin air.

Crosby’s own profile on the firm’s corporate website describes him as a “master of the dark political arts” and “Australia’s Karl Rove.”

In fact, it was likely Lynton Crosby’s work on the Tories’ 2005 election campaign which gave rise here to the term “dog-whistle politics.”

The Economist magazine described it at the time as “shamelessly pandering to prejudice” – but in such a way that the real message, like a dog whistle, was only audible to its intended audience.

Hence Tory leader Michael Howard’s relentless attacks on Gypsy and traveller communities on the comparatively minor issue of illegal parking, the now common refrains about “controlled” immigration and above all the Conservatives’ telling campaign slogan of that year: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

As you would expect, the internal affairs of such dog-whistle campaigns remain closely guarded secrets. The magician never reveals his tricks.

But as Crosby was pushing the Howard campaign here, his colleague Mark Textor was instructing New Zealand’s right-wing National Party on its own election bid.

And meanwhile someone within that byzantine organisation was feeding emails, memos, diary entries and the like to investigative journalist Nicky Hager – published soon after in his acclaimed exposé The Hollow Men (available here).

One of the documents leaked was Crosby Textor’s Qualitative Track Wave report, a search for what Textor described as “persuasive creative leads” in his polling.

“There was an overall belief that things in New Zealand are ‘generally’ heading in the right direction, due predominantly to perceptions about the ‘strength of the economy’.”

“An emerging trend in this wave of research is the sense that New Zealand is heading in the right direction because of a perception that more money is being spent on ‘social’ issues, such as health and education’.”

What Textor and the National Party organisers wanted was a public that preferred tax cuts and deregulation to welfare spending and market controls.

But Textor’s report was unequivocal: “At present, this sentiment does not exist.”

In fact, prior “benchmark” research had found respondents feared the National Party would be “too harsh” on social services, with “less money for health and education.”

Their millionaire leader Don Brash was “arrogant,” seemed as if he did not “think things through” and a typical response from the public was that his beloved tax cuts “missed the point” of improving living standards. (Sound familiar?)

But Textor believed there were still “strategic opportunities” among soft voters.

Once “prompted,” Textor had coaxed from them “an underlying sense that things in New Zealand ‘could’ be heading in the wrong direction due in part to mounting financial pressures on families and a concern that ‘perhaps’ not enough attention was being paid to ‘hard-working’ New Zealanders.”

Textor’s advice was to fixate, above all, on immigration and rights awarded to indigenous Maori people under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Auckland’s ageing infrastructure was “perceived” to be struggling with the growing population – but rather than tackle the thornier issue of public works, the National Party should follow the lead Crosby had given Howard in England and drive a wedge between immigration levels as a whole and “skilled migrants.”

So began one of the most controversial campaigns in New Zealand’s history, complete with allegations of a “dangerous drift toward racial separatism” and claims of a treaty-driven “grievance industry.”

In the space of a year the National Party rocketed from six points behind Labour in the polls to six points ahead and climbing – stalling only when it was revealed the party had also engaged in dirty tricks with a third-party campaign run by the Exclusive Brethren sect.

In the end Labour won by a scant two seats, when a year before Crosby Textor itself had admitted there was little real public support for the National Party’s policies.

That racist sentiment was whipped up in cheery little New Zealand during an economic boom.

Britain is four years into an economic crisis, with a growing number of attacks on benefit claimants and the disabled and proto-fascist street gangs such as the English Defence League already on the rise.

If you thought the last two years were vicious, just wait until you see the Tory rule in 2014.


One Comment on “Crosby/Textor: David Cameron’s dark masters of dogwhistle politics”

  1. […] saying what everyone’s thinking” has echoes of Crosby Textor’s famous “are you thinking what we’re thinking” dog whistle campaign for the UK Conservatives in […]

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