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.