Negative campaigning: it’s not very nice, but it works

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.

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10 Responses to “Negative campaigning: it’s not very nice, but it works”

  1. oldpolitics says:

    Ah, how different from the red-top publication called “Labour News” I saw poking out of letterboxes as I delivered our eve-of-poll five or so years ago. On liberating a copy, I saw that the “Labour News” was that ‘today is your chance to support Tony Blair and George Bush’s foreign policy!’. Looking more closely at the imprint, I saw that it was that of my local lib dems.

  2. Simone Webb says:

    “ever so inaccurate bar charts”
    This made me extremely uncomfortable to read. I think that the public perception of politicians as liars and manipulators is hardly improved when we (or ~any~ party!) start stooping to tricks like this.

    “is a leaflet in blue worse than forcing a million poor people to leave their homes in the city?”
    Are you suggesting that we should trick people into voting for us so we can save them? I don’t know…I understand exactly what you’re saying with this article, but I don’t like it. There’s too much of a sense that we should trick the electorate for their own good, that we can’t trust them to make an informed decision. As well as being wrong to do that, it also hardly helps our image! Obviously politics needs to be at least partly about pragmatism, but I don’t think we as a party should lose sight of basic ethics and morals in our drive to find out “what works.”

  3. And just to be absolutely clear, as one of Camden’s campaign maestros, there is nothing in the blue leaflet that is inaccurate in anyway at all. Unlike the many insinuations and half truths and distorted bar charts that we’re all so familiar with from the lib dems.

  4. Not on the scale of ‘The Straight Choice’ and ‘Which Queen Do You Support?’ leaflets in Bermondsey 1983. Those cuddly Liberals…

  5. Tom says:

    It doesn’t look that negative to me. They’re in coalition with the Tories. Nobody expected them to do that. They have no mandate for the current round of cuts. The leaflet makes that visual point with the blue text. What’s the problem?

    If anything, they’ve over-complicated the message with opening up too many fronts. Broken promises is very strong because everyone know it and sees them unfolding day by day. There was no need to use valuable space on “Lib Dem is an out-of-towner” message on the back. And the sub-head about police cuts is a bit confusing. Police numbers to me means 999. I’d have used that space for a tear-off slip. You can’t have too many tear off slips on local leaflets.

    Still, excellent result for the team. They did a good job. Well done.

    PS I used to know a guy in the Labour Party called Nick Russell. Did he defect to the Lib Dems?

  6. Theo Blackwell says:

    Tom – fair point perhaps too much, but he had to tie the candidate into the narrative on the front, as he used to be a cllr in the previous tory-lib dem administration.

    Being the ‘unique’ place that Camden is the blue ink thing caused a bit of a stir.

    Just one point of correction – the Lib dems didn’t moan about any of this really, perhaps because they have no solid grounds to stand on.

  7. Chris says:

    The muppets leaflet with Dr Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker is a stroke of genius!!!

    The Libs deserve everything they get, I’d rather have a raving neo-Thatcherite bastard as an MP than some stinking, bleeding heart Liberal who will complain but then vote with the raving neo-Thatcherite bastards.

  8. “Should Labour people be unperturbed about slightly distasteful leaflets which are forgotten tomorrow”?

    Sure, don’t worry yourself about all of that here, at planet Labour, where just about anything goes.

    After all, we’re the party that allows unions to send out ballot papers sealed in small envelopes inside bigger envelopes with “Vote Ed Miliband GMB’s choice for Labour Party leader” embossed on them. 

    Nothing like a little subtlety to enhance the democratic process

  9. Hal says:

    A lot of Labour campaigners don’t want to do anything “negative”, as if it is a sin. This is a mistake. It is perfectly legitimate, and indeed very necessary to point out the bad policies of the opposition.

    There is no need to mislead about the source, it can all be done on standard Labour party leaflets. If written well, clearly and simply then people will respond to the message.

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