Labour has become too focussed on winning

by Simone Webb

Reading Jessica Asato’s article on negative campaigning yesterday, I felt deeply uncomfortable. While delighted that we won the Kentish town by-election, the tactics described in the article worried me. I don’t disagree with negative campaigning if it’s confined to revealing the flaws in opponents’ arguments or criticising their actions in power. But the deception and trickery involved in dressing our leaflets up as Tory leaflets or, later in the article, using “ever so in-accurate bar charts” seems to me to be wrong on several levels.

First, it’s the idea at the heart of it: the idea that Labour needs to win, almost at any cost, even by trickery. Now, I believe people are better off under a Labour government. I wouldn’t be a party member otherwise. However, I also believe that people have a fundamental right to make an informed choice about which party they elect into power. If Labour party candidates are distributing leaflets which are even superficially deceptive, or show inaccurate data, or mislead the voters, then they are misinforming the electorate.

That it’s supposed to be for their own good – “is a leaflet in blue worse than forcing a million poor people to leave their homes in the city?” – makes it worse. It shows a distinct paternalism: the idea that people can’t be trusted to make the right choices, but must be tricked out of making the wrong ones. Once Labour starts deceiving the voters, or even telling semi-truths to them, for their own sake, we begin the slide down an extremely slippery slope.

Second, what profits it a party if it gains the whole world and suffer the loss of its soul, to misquote the gospels? Labour should be devoted to fairness (I would say equality, but that’s a word which seems to have gone out of fashion), devoted to making life better for people. We have always been a value-based movement, unlike the Conservatives, who have been primarily centred on political pragmatism. Is it really at the heart of Labour’s values to print dodgy leaflets and do “our grubby best”? Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, but I think we should win elections with our ideas, our values and our policies, or not at all. It is always difficult to balance pragmatism and ideology, but I think we are heading too far into pragmatism at the expense of what we stand for.

Third, there are pragmatic reasons too for not engaging in the kind of campaigning reluctantly espoused by Jessica Asato. Public trust in politicians is never high in this country, and at the moment it is particularly low. Labour especially has a reputation to regain if we’re to win again. We need to distinguish ourselves from the other parties. Politicians aren’t all the same, and we have to show it. To my mind, the kind of trickery we apparently used at the Kentish Town by-election may have won us some council seats, but what will it do for faith in us?

If we won because of some blue leaflets, people will lose sight of what we stand for, just seeing a collection of unpleasant leaflets delivered by the three parties. That is not what we need. We must regain the people’s trust in the party, and their trust in politics. Then we might, perhaps, get back into power.

I don’t want people to think that I’m adversely criticising Jessica Asato: I recognise that campaigning is difficult and that there are always choices to be made. That article, however, prompted me to express what I’ve been feeling for some time: the party has become too focused on winning, at the expense of…pretty much everything else.

Let’s not do that. Let’s focus on what we stand for. Let’s focus on the electorate, and what they want. Let’s focus on democracy.

Simone Webb is a Labour activist who blogs here.


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20 Responses to “Labour has become too focussed on winning”

  1. Michelle Smythe says:

    what nonsense. there was not a single lie or exaggeration in the leaflet – by using blue it mean that it was probably read by people who would throw a leaflet with LABOUR emblazoned all over it in the bin as we usually stupidly do. Labour winning without lieing is good enough for me

  2. Jamie Parkinson says:

    I completely agree on the negative campaigning front, it’s plain wrong, but I know from experience in the General Election that negative campaigning can work – the Tories in my constituency ran a decidedly dirty campaign about our brilliant (ex-) MP, Nick Palmer, who ran under the slogan “Positive Politics” and *never* resorted to mudslinging – he lost by 389 votes.

    As an aside, I feel that we, as the Labour Party, should continue to use the term ‘equality’ over ‘fairness’ since ‘fairness’ seems, at least to me, like quite a Tory term – fairness is definitely not quantifiable and is a pretty subjective term that you can claim is true for a given situation with no evidence whatsoever – I can imagine aging men in their Witney homes moaning about how it’s ‘unfair’ you can’t call black people ‘darkies’ any more and how life should be more ‘fair’ by having flat income tax and by giving White British workers more ‘fair’ chances etc etc etc… Equality, on the other hand, is a nice solid term which is quantifiable by statistics and studies (ie the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index).

  3. AnneJGP says:

    Thank you, Simone. I didn’t like to comment on Jessica’s article as I’m not an activist & know nothing of campaigning. However, you have articulated my own feelings very well and I’m grateful for your contrasting perspective.

  4. Dan Hodges says:

    Simone,

    Interesting piece, but I think it’s a bit misleading to imply Jessica was advocating negative campaigning. If you read her article she makes clear she also has a dilemma about the rights and wrongs of going negative.

    For what it’s worth, I disagree with both of you.

    A positive campaign is a losing campaign.

    Dan

  5. Kevin says:

    ‘…the party has become too focused on winning, at the expense of…pretty much everything else.’

    Hear what you’re saying, but is this an oxymoron for a political party?

    I suppose the dilemma about negative campaigning is accentuated by the fact that we lefties like to pitch out tents on the moral high ground. Doesn’t fit easily with low skulduggery. But the fact that we are tortured about it all shows what innately decent souls we are.

    And I have to say, I’ve seen much worse than the Kentish Town leaflet!

  6. Teresa Pearce says:

    You are wrong Dan your statement is simplistic. Look at the results in Bexley and in Greenwich. Greenwich positive campaign great result. Bexley total negative campaign terrible result.

  7. paul barker says:

    As a Libdem troll I feel sorry for Ms Webb & Ms Asato. Labour isnt & never has been a Party based on values. Labour has always been based on the Politics of Identity – I fall into this category ( working class/ BAME/northern etc) therefore I vote for this Party. Thats why Labour can happily accomodate decent people like Ms Webb alongside Phil Woolas.
    The tragedy is that the decent ones end by being corrupted or driven out of Politics altogether.

  8. mike says:

    I am sick to death of getting lying Lib Dem leaftlets through my door year on year – and them winning setas

    The Sesame Streets leaflet was top class

    it was not lying its the truth

    Fir politics went out years ago

    Its war

    ask the thousands who are losing their jobs if they agree with our leaflets

    winning the centre ground a consensus on education and health as New labour suggested was a joke, that really concerned the Tories (not)

    they dont care about consensus

    Its

    CLASS WAR

  9. Chris says:

    @Simone Webb

    I don’t see anything wrong with the blue leaflet, its not misleading in the slightest, it points out the total hypocrisy of the positions taken by the libdems before and after the election. And the muppets leaflet was just brilliant!!!

  10. Michelle – the article wasn’t intended to attack the blue leaflet in particular, although I do find the idea of printing Labour leaflets in blue uncomfortable. I was generalising to the idea behind it.

    Jamie – obviously that is the problem! I think this is one of those arguments that can only be settled on a personal level, in a sense. Everyone has to make an individual judgement over their idealism/pragmatism balance, and I respect that.

    Anne – thank you very much!

    Dan – I’m sorry if I gave the impression too much I was criticising Jessica; I certainly didn’t mean to do so. I do actually say that it’s something she’s “reluctantly espousing” and that I recognise there are difficult choices to be made. Perhaps I should have made it clearer. Apologies if so!

    Kevin – I don’t think it’s an oxymoron, although I know what you mean! But surely you’ll agree that the point of Labour’s existence isn’t to win elections. Winning elections isn’t an end in itself, but a means to an end: we must win elections so we can put our policies into practice and make the country a better place. And yes, I agree that the blue leaflet isn’t the worst thing ever: it’s the principle behind it I’m objecting to.

    Paul – that’s an interesting point about Labour being a party of identity! I guess that was certainly the case at its origin, although I might dispute how much it still is. I think New Labour definitely tried to take us away from a class-orientated perspective. But I think maybe being a party of identity also gave us particular values. And hah, I’m glad to be considered decent! Hoping I don’t get corrupted, though…

    Mike – the Sesame Streets leaflet isn’t the issue here. And the thousands who are losing their jobs are the ~voters~. Which means they can choose who to vote for; they don’t need us to trick them into voting for the “right” party. (Or left, as it may be! )

    Chris – the blue leaflet wasn’t so much the point here, although as I’ve said, I don’t particularly care for a Labour leaflet being printed in blue.

  11. My initial reaction to the headline about Labour being obsessed with winning at all costs was ‘if only’! In government the party did a lot of things that were right but not popular, and also failed to tell the full story of its achievements. But let me address first the specific point about Camden and then the general.

    I had no reservations about the material we used in Kentish Town – the Sesame Street thing was funny and who cares about the colour of a leaflet? The content that I saw was entirely accurate, although if it’s true that we had a dodgy bar chart I would come over a bit Royal Statistical Society about that.

    The local context is important. For year after year we have been clobbered in by-elections in particular by extremely unscrupulous Lib Dem campaigns. There are so many highlights, but I offer two. A leaflet in one by-election from them referred to NO issues for which Camden council was responsible – it was all GLA, government or anywhere else. And their bar charts here are notorious. I was given a leaflet in the EURO elections with a bar chart and the message ‘Tories can’t win here’ – when of course the Tories were the leading party in the region’s PR election! Camden Labour people are generally thoughtful and mild types, and even after all this there was some reluctance to attack properly – for instance, people disliked the ethics of making an issue of a non-borough matter like the Northern Line in a borough election.

    In the latest campaign in Kentish Town the Lib Dems continued to circulate highly negative and misleading material.

    It’s an unfortunate but inescapable fact that these Lib Dem techniques got results; a blizzard of leaflets of varying degrees of truthfulness swamped our message – they pioneered a kind of ‘bait and switch’ in which a political hack could pose as a ‘local campaigner’ and ‘campaign’ on issues that had nothing to do with how they ran the council. Labour has had to raise its game (or lower its standards, depending on how you look at it) to get the message across. Yes, Labour needs to stand for equality (‘fairness’ being a vague and devalued term) and be positive, but we need to engage sharply and not just sit back and soak up attacks and hope the facts speak for themselves.

    A couple of other points – local political cultures vary and what is acceptable in one area may strike the wrong note in another. Inner London politics can be pretty rough (and as a Camdenite, Lambeth politics strikes me as being much rougher than ours), and in an area like Kentish Town a bit of satire goes down well. It may not everywhere.

    Also, to me there’s a sharp difference between different sorts of negative campaigning. It’s wrong to use someone’s private life against them. It’s wrong to lie. I think one should also keep it civil. But if someone plays the ‘more local than you’ card without the facts to back it up; if someone plays scare stories about cuts that their government are making against your council; if someone poses as progressive while supporting a Tory agenda… well, by all means point it out to the electorate. And doing so in a way that uses humour, and facts, is much more effective than unmediated anger which just plays into the ‘they’re all the same’ narrative.

  12. Negative campaigning works when it’s factual, it’s strongly issue-based and it strikes a chord. And why shouldn’t it? There are as many good reasons to vote against a party as for it and I believe part of electoral campaigning has to be about assigning blame, as much as part of it is about claiming credit or setting out plans.

    There’s a simple check for whether negative campaigning is worth it: would it backfire and make you look terrible if it was leaked to the local press? Because if it will, it will get leaked to the local press and you’ll lose more votes than you’d gain, and be forever tarnished to a greater or lesser extent. Hence the Woolas stuff wasn’t just sleazy, it was also electorally foolish (if not in the short-term, definitely in the medium and long-term).

    But aside from that, take off the kid gloves. If it’s true, don’t be afraid to say it and if the colour thing bothers you then read some Lib Dem literature. It’ll open your eyes to the possibilities.

    Not that I’m arguing running a campaign purely on negativity – grumpiness is not a winning electoral asset. But we’re in politics because we feel strongly about issues, and members of other parties are in it for the same reason, but their views are diametrically opposed to ours. We should be pointing out when we disagree and if there’s the opportunity to make them look bad in the process, I think it’s foolish not to take it.

    Winning matters.

  13. Lewis – thanks for that comment; it’s really interesting, and made me think. I agree that the local context is important when deciding on how a campaign should be run, and knowing more about the kind of campaign run by the Lib Dems has definitely made me appreciate more the difficulty in combating it. (And indeed the level of success we achieved in winning.) However, I still dislike the idea that to win, Labour needs to sink to the level of our opponents, although it may be necessary. Obviously we do need to “engage sharply”, but I remain uncertain whether this should necessarily entail circulating misleading information. I’d also like to reiterate again that this article wasn’t about the Kentish Town by-election as such as it was the general issues raised by Jessica’s article: I agree that the blue leaflet, although I’m uncomfortable with it, is not a major issue in the grand scheme of things, but I feel that any kind of electoral deception is a step down the wrong path.

    I agree with your last paragraph I think unreservedly: I would never claim that negative campaigning was inherently a bad thing – the flaws and actions of our opponents definitely need to exposed, and this should be done with as much fanfare as possible!

    Edward – I mostly agree with you! My article wasn’t attacking the idea of negative campaigning per se, but the semi-deceitful nature it takes. And as for the blue leaflets: I’m still not comfortable with them, but I agree they’re definitely not the most important issue here. However, I don’t think that we should be comparing ourselves like this with the Lib Dem literature. The point is that we’re better than them. If they print misleading leaflets, we need to retaliate with leaflets pointing our their deceit – not respond with deceit of our own, surely?

  14. Without commenting on the specifics of Kentish Town – I definitely agree we ought to be trying to move away from negative campaigning in general. There are degrees, of course. A bit of humour works well, but too often negative campaign literature reads like scaremongering or children throwing insults in the playground (‘I’m more local than you are’…). I don’t want to know why voting for the other party would be a bad choice so much as why voting for this party would be a good one.

    I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that other parties playing dirty justifies it either. (If politicians of all parties fiddle expenses, it still doesn’t make it right…)

  15. Chris says:

    @Simone

    “If they print misleading leaflets, we need to retaliate with leaflets pointing our their deceit – not respond with deceit of our own, surely?”

    Yes…but all leaflets take time and money, its not like the air war when you just put a talking head up to rebut their nonsense; you’ve got to get hold of the leaflet knock up a rebuttal, print then deliver. Plus, if its petty rubbish about bar charts then voters aren’t interested.

    When the libdem morons, like paul barker, are coming out with negative leaflets full of bitchy nonsense about candidates, etc its pointless to engage in a leaflet debate. Much better to get our retaliation in first. The libs don’t take any prisoners, why should we?

  16. Chris: “The libs don’t take any prisoners, why should we?”
    Because we’re NOT the Liberal Democrats! We’re the Labour party. And the rhetoric about getting our retaliation in first is reminiscent of the language of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. I think that part of the problem with British politics as it stands is that it is too confrontational – we could do with a bit more consensus politics, and all parties working out what’s best for people, rather than fighting tooth and nail for votes.

    Jess – “I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that other parties playing dirty justifies it either. (If politicians of all parties fiddle expenses, it still doesn’t make it right…)”
    This, so much.

  17. Londoner says:

    I’m afraid I find Simone very naive. She does not explain whether she has any experience of campaigning in elections. Anyone who has had the displeasure of facing a Lib Dem opponent knows that there is no low they will not stoop too. Politics is not a nasty free utopia, Simone. If you can’t handle a little rough and tumble best leave politics well alone and the colour of a leaflet is completely trivial.

  18. Chris says:

    @simone

    “Because we’re NOT the Liberal Democrats! We’re the Labour party.”

    But do we want to beat the libs?

    Yes we should be positive and explain our ideas and policies but people don’t vote purely on ideas and policies they also take personality, smears and who is best placed to keep the tories out into consideration.

    “And the rhetoric about getting our retaliation in first is reminiscent of the language of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction.”

    Bit over the top, I’m not suggesting we drop a nuclear weapon on the local libs office. However, if they’re going to print leaflets with the last local election result on it saying Labour can’t win here, what is wrong printing a leaflet with the last general election result on it saying the libs can’t win here.

  19. Londoner – I’m sorry you find a little refocusing on ethics naive and trivial. As I’ve explained many times in the article and in the comments, the colour of the leaflet really isn’t the main issue here.

    Chris – of course we want to beat the Lib Dems. I think that our debate probably comes down to how far we personally place the balance between idealism and pragmatism, to be honest, and how much winning at any cost means. It’s a bit hard to argue about it evidentially…

  20. I’d second Chris’ point – rebutting Lib Dem claims requires a lot of lead-up time, which is why they get nastier towards the end (before finishing positively, in many cases, whereas if we’re responding we look negative). Moreover, many of the slurs are constructed such that it takes a lot of time to rebut them in sufficient detail.

    By which time people have either switched off or assumed that if you’re spending that much time defending yourself, there must be something to the claim.

    Normally I’d say it’s better to just ignore the claim and get on with running your campaign, not rebutting theirs. But if it’s big enough to have a major negative impact on your chances, you absolutely have to react. And reacting by releasing factually accurate negative attacks on the other side is unquestionably effective (at making their promises less eager to vote and yours more eager to vote, if nothing else).

    Yes, I want to win clean. But if a campaign organiser looks at the canvass returns and genuinely thinks it’s a choice between losing clean and winning with negativity, there’s not a question in my mind that they should go for the second.

    If they’re wrong, they’re wrong (although nobody can really tell if they genuinely believed it unless they were pretty heavily involved in the campaign themselves.) And if it backfires, it was clearly the wrong decision.

    But you can do more for your constituents as a Labour councillor/MP than you can as ‘part of your local Labour team!’. If you have to be rude about a smug little bastard with only a distant relation to the truth, then I say you should give the Lib Dems both barrels.

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