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The UK Dog Whistle Problem and How to Fix It

30/08/2013 10:44 BST | Updated 28/10/2013 09:12 GMT

We are all familiar with the dog whistle effect. It emits a high frequency pitch audible only to canines, allowing for long range control over the beast's behaviour with minimal disturbance to the peripheral creatures who are usually the victim of it all. Its effectiveness is unrivalled when bringing order to a herding programme, a hunt, or to manage disobedience further afield than the reach of human voice. Any dog trainer will tell you that the whistle's invention is revolutionary, but like all revolutionary inventions, the thinkers of our world have evolved it into something entirely unintended.

This happened to the whistle around 1990, when Lynton Crosby, an Australian spin doctor rammed it through the mangle and discovered a new and potent political rhetoric. Since then he has led four election victories for John Howard, Australian right winger and longest serving Australian Prime Minister, and two London Mayoral victories for Boris Johnson, Conservative MP who was previously limping at the wayside half crazed and entirely off track. Crosby's supporters herald him as a 'political genius', but those against his methods will call him a 'master of the dark arts' - a man of unquestionable success but questionable morals.

His approach works by tapping into social issues unearthed by polls, and once identified, the public will be addressed in a code word rhetoric that creeps silently across the electorate like a gas. The 2008 Blue-Doughnut Campaign is a telling example. Back when Labour MP Ken Livingstone's Mayoral campaign focussed largely on London's inner city boroughs and Conservative MP Boris Johnson focussed on telling jokes to all of London's boroughs, Lynton Crosby was brought in to fatten the Tory pig for market day.

He identified London as a 'doughnut city'. Voters in the centre could be rich, poor, blue or red but certainly flaky - so no clear line to tow there. Outside constituents were wealthier, more suburban, so Boris addressed London's picket fence concerns, rallied against the West London congestion charge and took Heathrow's second runway to task. Inner Londoners were apathetic to these policies but the peripheries were appeased - The Conservative vote increased from 29% to 43% and Boris was victorious.

Crosby's tactics were admirable and arguably harmless, but he also deals from the bottom of the deck. In Australia in 1992, with racial tensions abound and Labor (the party in charge) deplored for soft sentencing and relaxed immigration by the Liberal Party (the Australian equivalent to the UK's Conservative Party), an Aborigine man fatally stabbed an Australian woman. Crosby, the campaign leader for the Liberals dealt a wild card: his message was that Labor had 'the blood of the victim on their hands', directly challenging sentencing laws but dog whistling to the core voters on immigration.

Crosby cranked up the pressure cooker again in 2001 by suggesting Australia was being invaded by refugees. The campaign went like this: the refugees had clear links to terrorism and desperately threw a baby overboard to force Australian authorities to allow them to land. The Government was accused of dog whistling (what kind of inhumane brute would murder a child? Immigrants?) but the Defence Minister and others continued to relay this story until election-day despite the Navy's attempts to rebuke the claim. The Liberal Party came up trumps, but when a Senate committee discovered that Ministers had failed to inform the PM of the Navy's concerns, PM John Howard told the nation to 'move on'.

The tactics used in the 2005 UK Conservative campaign were not dissimilar. Labour were under fire for soft immigration laws, poor hospital standards and lenient jail terms, so the Conservatives' advertisement approach was to appeal to the lowest common denominator and continually ask us, 'How would you feel if a bloke on early release killed your daughter?', 'how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?' and 'Could you imagine another 5 years of this?' with the words 'Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?' emblazoned underneath. Crosby headed this campaign, and although the Conservatives lost, Labour's seats were reduced from 160 to just 66. Much of this is down to Blair's decline in popularity following the Iraq War, but it would be reasonable to assume Crosby's campaign was a success. He has been pay-rolled to lead the Conservative's 2014 campaign, after all.

We are in for some serious politics over the next year and Labour understands that. This is no minor issue, no pimple on the face of democracy that will go away with a brush of topical treatment. Initially they need someone who understands these kind of politics. Currently they are getting this type of information from Bruce Hawker, Crosby's longest standing adversary, but he is committed to Australia's electoral race and does not have a strong UK presence like Crosby. Nevertheless they must invest time and money on educating themselves and the public on how it all works before unleashing some clichéd satirical axiom like, 'How can you defend yourself against a weapon if you do not know it is there?' upon us all. Indeed, do the opposition's work for them, they will not be expecting that, tune the peripheral electorate into the whistle rather than the whistle into the electorate, then create a campaign cross wind and drown the thing out.