by Jessica Asato
Does negative campaigning work and how should Labour people feel about it in the ‘new generation’ era?
I asked myself this question last night while watching the Kentish Town council by-election result in London flash up on Twitter. Labour’s Jenny Headlam-Wells trashed the Lib Dems, who held all three seats in the ward just six months ago. Having spent a few hours coaxing people out of their warm homes to the polling station, I was of course delighted. There are few more satisfying activities than participating in a successful Labour election, particularly when the government is taking us back to the 80s. But something was niggling me.
During the election, the Liberal Democrats accused Labour of underhand tactics for distributing this leaflet. Printed in blue, without a Labour logo, it could be easily mistaken by a voter for Conservative literature. Richard Osley, North London political blogger extraordinaire, called it a “feast of negative campaigning”. My first reaction was that Labour would have failed in its political duty if it had not brought the Lib Dems’ broken promises on tuition fees, VAT, cuts and child benefit to the attention of Kentish Town residents. The fluffy community campaigners cannot hide from the fact they form a government presiding over public sector cuts three times the scale of Thatcher’s.
My second thought was that it was a bit rich of the Lib Dems to complain about a Labour leaflet printed in blue. After all, those pesky Lib Dems practically trademarked the technique. Here is a classic example from my own borough. Looks like the Tories want the good people of Islington to vote Lib Dem does it not? In my thirteen years of campaigning I have given up fuming at the guile of Lib Dem literature. From a brutal political perspective it seems to work. We have all seen the “two-horse race” and bar charts using data from whichever election previously put the Lib Dems in the best light (usually the Europeans).
The Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995 has become legendary for the vicious campaigning by the Lib Dem’s Chris (now Lord) Rennard against Labour’s communications chief, Peter Mandelson. For those of you who were too young to remember it, this short history from Saddleworth News will give you the sordid highlights. That time, Rennard’s candidate won against a Labour candidate called Phil Woolas. It perhaps sowed the seeds which led to Phil Woolas’ unforgivable leaflet in the recent general election. We will find out the result of his court case on November 5.
Of course, nothing in UK politics compares with the nasty and brutish world of US politics. Negative campaigning there is a political art, starting with the infamous Daisy ad used in Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964, through the Harry and Louise ads which derailed Clinton’s healthcare reform plans in 1994, to even Obama taking time out from the new politics to outspend McCain on negative ads like this one. There are reams written on whether negative campaigning works. Those who like to dabble in it, such as former Clinton adviser, Mark Penn, think it does. If it didn’t, why would campaign strategists spend millions of dollars on it? We all know that the public say one thing about negative campaigning, but do another. They may hate Punch and Judy politics, but when it is going on, more people turn on the box to watch. This is not confined to politics either: why else would X Factor or the Apprentice do so well?
Thankfully, the ban in the UK on political advertising on TV means that we are spared the race to the negative bottom; though we do seem to be doing our grubby best at ward level. Which brings me back to my first question. Should Labour people be unperturbed about slightly distasteful leaflets which are forgotten tomorrow? I would be a hypocrite to say I hadn’t delivered leaflets I felt demeaned the intelligence of voters, or used ever so inaccurate bar charts. But in the grand scheme of political activity, is a leaflet in blue worse than forcing a million poor people to leave their homes in the city? Of course not, though I would prefer in a perfect world that Labour avoided misleading voters.
Which is why this leaflet – also courtesy of the Kentish Town by-election – gets top marks.
Jessica Asato is a social media consultant and Islington councillor.