Yes, the Tories were in the gutter yesterday. But that’s where elections are won

by Atul Hatwal

It’s the hope that kills. That’s what large sections of the Labour party are about to find out. I certainly did in 1992. Now, as then, the Tories are accused of being in the gutter. Now, as then, several of the headline polls flatter.  And a few weeks from now, as then, Labour will be left to wonder how it all went wrong.

Yesterday, while Twitter was rapt with Ed Miliband’s rising ratings in Survation’s latest poll, a more apposite survey went without comment. The Sun’s YouGov poll, which asked who voters’ preferred as PM – Cameron or Miliband – found 40% opting for David Cameron and 24% for Ed Miliband.

Elections are a comparative choice. Only those questions which force voters to make a choice between the applicants for the job on offer, approximate the electoral decision-making process. Polls such as Survation’s, which ask questions on approval vs disapproval are better at capturing the public’s views of a leader’s performance relative to their past perceptions of that politician.

Some good days for a historically poorly rated leader could result in quite a bounce. Vice versa for a leader traditionally well regarded who stumbles.

This is what happened yesterday with Survation. On Tuesday, when the poll was conducted, Ed Miliband did well while David Cameron and the Tories looked awful defending non-doms.

But as James Kirkup astutely highlighted, while the public stand with Labour on the issue of non-doms, few votes will be switched. The perception of Labour as more committed to fairness is well established. As is the Tories’ penchant for backing the wealthy elite.

All of this has already been baked into voters’ perceptions. Which is why, when forced to choose between the two on preference for prime minister, those self-same voters, who will have seen an improved Ed Miliband over recent days, would still opt for David Cameron by double digits –  a majority that has remained stubbornly in place for years.

A few weeks from now, Thursday’s excitement will seem like yet another cruel false dawn. Rather than being viewed, in the words of an excitable Guardian splash as the “day the polls turned,” the focus will be on the Tories much derided mud-slinging strategy as a tactically telling intervention.

Michael Fallon and his Tory colleagues have been castigated for gutter politics with their emphasis on Ed Miliband’s conflict with his brother and patently ludicrous claims about Labour abandoning Trident. As news of the positive polls broke, the Labour Twittersphere was convinced that the Tory attacks were the last desperate act of a flailing campaign.

The Conservative’s onslaught was exactly the type of behaviour which alienates the public from politics. But parties, all parties, habitually engage in these types of attacks because they work.

The objectives of yesterday’s seemingly random act of political ABH were threefold.

First, to change the conversation from non-doms and ensure that Labour did not control the news agenda for another day. Tick.

Second, to refocus voters’ thoughts on Ed Miliband’s character. The manner in which Ed Miliband defeated his brother is regularly brought up on the doorstep with Labour canvassers and crystallises discomfort with the idea of Ed Miliband as an untrustworthy leader, for many voters.

For all the flack the Tories took, they achieved this and over the coming days, the brother issue will be brought more regularly up on the doorstep.

Third, the Tories wanted to link Labour back to the bad old days of the 1980s. In the 2015 campaign, the nuclear deterrent will barely register for most voters as an issue. But by tying Labour to a defining policy from Labour’s past, the Conservatives are building a familiar jigsaw in voters’ minds of a party that is dangerously left-wing and too much of a risk.

Defence is one piece of a larger picture.

Ed Miliband’s clear commitment to Trident refuted the Tory line, but unilateral noises off from Labour’s left will have lent credence to the Tory charge.

A few weeks from now, the effectiveness of these tactics will be evident. Day after day of these types of attack, defining Ed Miliband as too odd and otherly to lead and Labour as a party trapped in the 1980s, will take their toll.

This will not make for noble or edifying campaign. But now, as in 1992, it will critically influence the result.

There was a time when Labour understood this. Much of the mentality of the party’s 1997 campaign was forged in the defeat of 1992. In Labour’s HQ at Milbank a frequent refrain was that we weren’t ever again going to allow the Tories beat up on us as they did in 1992.

There was a pivotal moment a couple of weeks out from polling day. John Major’s Tory party had moved up slightly in the polls and nerves were jangling. How to regain the momentum? A move back onto Labour’s core issue of health? A push on the positive optimistic Labour vision?

Of course not.

Labour spent the next week ripping into the Tories for threatening pensions and casting Britain’s OAPs into destitution. It was a lie. A smear. And it was incredibly effective. The political conversation was no longer about the Tory fightback and suddenly all about what the Tories would do to old people. Job done.

This is what the Tories were doing yesterday. It’s why the viciousness and excessive nature of the assault will come to be seen as a key moment in the campaign. Its why, come May 7th, voters might award Ed Miliband significantly improved ratings as Labour leader but still vote to keep David Cameron in Number 10 by a significant majority.

The gutter is an ugly place to be, but in the campaign moments that matter, it’s where elections are won.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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11 Responses to “Yes, the Tories were in the gutter yesterday. But that’s where elections are won”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Maybe ,it was the idea, that those on the far left with their illegal atacked on Ukip leaders family, or preventing their freedom of speech,by heckling him as he tried to host functions, at Pubs,
    Perhaps it’s a case of the loony left are in the sewer and the Tories are still above, them in the gutter

  2. John P Reid says:

    The Tory press attack on ed is pitiful if anything it’s having a counter effective effect,if the Tories win,it’ll be despite this,not because of it,

  3. BenM says:

    1992 seems to be the theme picked up by Labour Uncut and several Tories.

    Translated into simple English that means “we don’t believe the polls”.

    If you don’t believe the polling say so.

  4. Dougie says:

    Given what some members of the Labour Party said about Ed after he won the leadership election, Fallon’s comments count as pretty mild. Only last February, Len McCluskey was reported as calling for Blairites to stop “stabbing Labour in the back” so is the phrase so offensive? And as for the Tories “personalising” the campaign, didn’t Ed start that at the last session of PMQs by calling Cameron “dodgy”?
    Frankly, I share Fallon’s concern that Ed will do a deal with Sturgeon. So, Ed has given “a clear commitment to Trident”. So what? Am I supposed to be reassured? Politicians always keep their word, after all. Given that at the dissolution there were 58 Labour MPs who openly opposed Trident and that 75% of Labour PPCs currently oppose Trident, Ed cannot form a government without the support of the anti-Trident SNP/Labour contingent.
    I’d trust a commitment to Trident given by George Robertson or John Reid but by Ed? Sorry, those nagging doubts just won’t go away.

  5. Tafia says:

    We used to have a saying in the Infantry – never hit your opponent if you can kick them, never kick them if you can hit them with a hard object, never hit them with a hard object if you can just shoot then through the face instead. Once you’ve git them on the floor keep them there and never ever show mercy until you have destroyed them.

    But above all, have the will to do it, enjoy it and want to do it again.

    If you don’t like fighting dirty, don’t get involved in the fight.

  6. woolfiesmiff says:

    Er I would think Miliband & Balls were eternally grateful that the Tories moved the story from Non Dom’s. Another disaster policy designed to titivate the naive. It would actually lose money if implemented, whilst it would motivate the unthinking hordes it would hit Labour in the pocket too. A gimmick much like Camerons half arsed big society paid volunteer policy .

  7. 07052015 says:

    A sad piece -miliband thinks things have changed post crash ,atul seems to think nothing ever changes ,england is a tory country and thats that.

    My impression is that the voters are more disengaged than ever and the negative macho personal stuff turns many voters off.I can see a drop in turnout.

    Ed M seems determined to fight on policies ,good for him.

    That said current dont knows but will votes may be influenced by mudthrowing but yougov puts labour back in front tonight so that clock is ticking for crosby and his dog whistle.

  8. DM says:

    Why on earth do you think your vague sense of what voters really think is more reliable than the polls? That’s not to say that the polls are right or anything, let alone that we know how a particular national percentage will translate into seats, in such a complex electoral landscape. Given that, and the fact that neither side has a clear lead in the polls, it would be foolish to be surprised if Cameron won a narrow majority. But nonetheless, why do you think your guess at what people are really thinking is more likely to be right than the pollsters tactic of first asking them how they’re going to vote and how they voted last time, and then adjusting the results for the ways in which people typically lie or change their minds? Does ‘guess work by highly committed and partisan political blogger’ really have a better track record than ‘trust the polls, but recognize that this method has a fairly large margin of error’?

  9. BenM says:


    A disaster policy with 3/4 of voters in agreement with it!

    The Right has totally lost connection with reality.

  10. KidKilburn says:

    It was a calibrated attack designed to bolster the SNP (tick) and to turn some Labour guns inward (tick) The stab in the back mantra will resonate with anyone who feels that Labour has wandered away from or abandoned them. For example a good swath of the immigrant community will feel stabbed in the back by Labour’s jumping on the “control immigrants” bandwagon – don’t believe me then look at BBC news at 6 and 10 where they had a Czech woman talking about the rise of anti immigrant backlash this election is stirring up.

    This is a direct result of Ed’s 35% policy – in a desperate attempt to cobble together a coalition of 35% Labour is going out of its way to alienate the remaining 65%. Something the Torrie are more than happy to exploit.

  11. John. reid says:

    BenM it’s not the policy that’s the disaster, it was the presentation, when it eas t thought through.

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