The highs and lows of political campaigning
SUNDER KATWALA, Director, British Future
HOW low should you go when campaigning to govern? Westminster’s Easter weekend was dominated by a fierce arguments about campaign ethics after both major parties sought to make political capital from child sexual abuse.
“Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t” was Labour’s false, borderline defamatory claim about the Prime Minister. That would probably breach electoral law if produced on a leaflet in his constituency during the general election, though there is no similar prohibition at this point of the electoral cycle.
Most of the Labour defence of crossing this line amounts to: ‘they started it’. It is an argument familiar to any parent of toddlers. Labour justifiably challenged Boris Johnson’s false smears against Keir Starmer over Jimmy Saville a year ago. Home Secretary Suella Braverman made the false claim that almost all group-based sexual abuse is by British Pakistanis, less a dog whistle than a foghorn. Was there any racial element to Labour targeting a British Asian Prime Minister with this line of attack? Perceptions differ. Had Labour attacked Liz Truss and Boris Johnson in similar terms, this question would not arise. That they did not do so leaves it open. Boris Johnson’s comments that historic child sex inquiries were “spaffing money up a wall” could have been more legitimately targeted. Canvassing opinions, I found British Asians more likely to think this may have been a cynical tit-for-tat contribution to the racialised debate about grooming, or careless unconscious bias.
Negative campaigning is part of politics. The opposition need to connect Rishi Sunak to his predecessors since 2010, since its strongest case is that after 13 years it is time for change. The Government’s record on crime is a legitimate target. Despite headline-grabbing tough talk, the conviction rates for burglary and rape are derisory. There is a world of difference between asking voters if they are better off than four years ago – challenging Sunak over high taxes, high inflation, low growth – and asserting that the Prime Minister does not want paedophiles to go to prison.
This Labour attack on Sunak will delegitimise the party’s complaints about future Conservative attacks on Starmer’s record as a public prosecutor – though it would be naïve to think those would not have happened anyway. There is something in the Labour grievance that the party of the left is held to higher standards than the party of the right. But this is not simply a function of the partisan bias of some key media outlets. It also reflects a different political culture within the two parties. Criticism of the advert was not factional, with former Home Secretary David Blunkett being as vocal as any Corbynista. Mostly only those whose job it was to defend the ad seemed to do so. Ill-judged newspaper briefings gave the impression that some Labour staffers may have mistaken the foul-mouthed bully Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It as more of a training manual than a political satire. But Labour may find that it gains a reputation not for ruthlessness but for inauthenticity if it produces arguments that the leadership does not believe and the party tribe will not defend.
Crime remains a key issue where public instincts are tougher than those in Westminster. So politicians of all parties like to sound tough. New Labour’s highly effective message of being tough on crime and tough on its causes did involve some useful nuance about an effective strategy. The public have become more sceptical about what Blair called “eye-catching initiatives” like marching yobs to cashpoints. Keir Starmer has a track record in prosecuting crime, but he does not believe in a bidding war on the use of prisons.
Sunak and Starmer have more in common than either might want to acknowledge. Both came to electoral politics after professional success in other spheres. They are somewhat technocratic politicians, somewhat more confident with governing than campaigning. Neither is a natural political street fighter. Each is still seeking to establish a public connection, particularly with those voters who will tune in to Westminster politics when it is almost time to make a decision about who should govern. My prior instinct would have been that neither Sunak nor Starmer is a natural advocate of the politics of personal smears. Sunak indicated that he would not have chosen to make Johnson’s attack over Jimmy Saville and Starmer’s record as a public prosecutor. Starmer has said he values having professional relationships across the parties. Each has spoken about the value of integrity in politics – yet both are now in receipt of cynical advice that they cannot afford such scruples.
As political leaders, both have responsibility for the advice that they choose to take and execute. The principle of the last week has been: if they go low, we go lower. Eighteen more months of this and whoever wins the election may have cause to regret the corrosive contribution for their ability to govern.