Are we facing a dirty general election campaign?
How dirty is this year’s general election campaign going to get – and is there anything that can be done to modify the abuse?
The polls suggest the contest won’t even be close, with Rishi Sunak having failed to peg back Labour’s commanding lead. So what’s the point of the Conservatives and their outriders running a dirty campaign if they’re going to lose anyway?
Governments instinctively don’t give up power voluntarily and will fight to retain it with all their might. If the Tories don’t make headway in the polls by conventional means – headline-grabbing policy announcements and pre-election giveaways – it’s a fair bet that their campaign will turn nasty.
There’s a tendency to argue that social media has made campaigns dirtier, but we mustn’t forget that before social media was invented, vitriolic personal attacks were already commonplace, especially in advance of elections. In 1992 it appeared that Labour leader Neil Kinnock was heading for Downing Street, but the party was defeated after a vicious and unrelenting onslaught mounted against him by Tory tabloids.
Infamously, on the day of the election the Sun’s front page carried a mocked-up picture of Kinnock’s head as a light bulb, with the caption: “If Kinnock wins today , will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” After the unexpected Tory victory, the paper’s front page headline boasted: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.
Both before and after the advent of social media, Labour leaders have found themselves vilified. In 2017 Theresa May thought she was going to cruise to victory with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. It seems that she and her followers were overconfident, thinking they could win by presenting her as a “strong and stable” leader – something she clearly wasn’t. They assumed they could let Corbyn do damage to himself and by extension to his party, failing to recognise that his status as an unconventional leader actually appealed to a lot of voters.
Two years later, with the Tories led by the charismatic, pre-Covid Boris Johnson, Corbyn wasn’t given a second chance. His image was transformed from that of a refreshingly authentic anti-elitist insurgent into a dangerous subversive who chose to rub shoulders with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. And as has become clear, there were plenty of Labour insiders on the right of the party prepared to go out of their way to undermine someone who was, after all, their elected leader.
Keir Starmer poses a bigger challenge for his opponents on the right. Instead of frightening the horses, he’s more likely to act as a sedative. He can be accused of backtracking on promises he made during his leadership campaign and later, but those who are disenchanted with him will be on the left of the party or will have decided to leave it. They’re not going to be voting Tory and in a marginal seat where the only other possible winner is the Conservative candidate, most would half-heartedly vote Labour.
We had a taste the other day of the kind of venom Starmer can expect from the right-wing tabloids as the election gets closer. Having doubtless scoured the internet in vain for pictures of the current Labour leader with members of proscribed terrorist groups, the Sun homed in on the fact that as a young barrister Starmer had provided pro bono legal assistance to Death Row prisoners in the United States.
The paper unearthed grisly details of the murders that had been committed, suggesting that Starmer was more sympathetic to the killers than their victims – a non sequitur, of course, given that his involvement in such cases clearly stemmed not from any love for the murderers but from his principled opposition to capital punishment, which was abolished in the UK nearly 60 years ago.
No doubt there are people who will be impressed by such stuff, but they’re already likely to be flirting with the far right. In fact, this raises another problem for the Tories, as does their apparent plan to make the issue of small boat migration a major election issue. However the Conservatives try to spin it, the number of migrants arriving on Britain’s shores in small boats has risen massively during their time in office. Those who see it as the most important issue in the election are more likely to vote for the Reform UK Party Ltd, owned and controlled personally by Nigel Farage. If Reform sticks to its guns and refuses to stand down in Tory seats, thus splitting the right wing vote, Labour will make even bigger gains.
The other day Keir Starmer said his party would “fight fire with fire” and was prepared to campaign aggressively if the Conservatives wanted that kind of election. But it’s difficult to imagine him engaging in unseemly personal attacks of the Sun ilk. Far from being the kind of pugilistic campaigner John Prescott was, who during the 2001 general election campaign punched a demonstrator in Rhyl who threw an egg at him, Starmer has mastered the technique of saying nothing when challenged in public by activists with a grievance of any kind.
There’s plenty of TV footage to confirm that. This may heighten the blood pressure of campaigners who feel passionately about a cause, but it stops Starmer making an unguarded gaffe of the kind he made when he appeared to suggest that it was acceptable for Israel to withhold energy and water from Gaza.
I suspect that when Starmer talks of “fighting fire with fire”, he means pointing out the egregious behaviour of the Tories in office, from Partygate to crony Covid contracts. But that’s not dirty politics – it’s conventional politics that are ethically based and should take centre ground in any election campaign.
Of course there will be loads of abuse on social media – and that’s a given. There will be plenty of anti-Tory abuse too. That’s how some people like to do politics. More sinister is the deliberate spread of misinformation – something that social media channels are reluctant to police and in some cases seem determined to promote. Changing that situation for the better is not a short-term challenge.
There’s one thing parties can do to ensure a cleaner campaign: make a commitment to not run away from scrutiny. Starmer’s determination not to engage with demonstrators is only part of it.
There’s a tendency for Labour politicians in particular to play safe and say nothing when asked questions they perceive as awkward. It’s understandable that they will be shy of making ad hoc spending commitments that could lead to allegations that they were being financially irresponsible.
But such an argument won’t hold water closer to the election. Nor must they fudge policy explanations.
There’s little doubt that Labour is hoping to win the election on the back of Tory incompetence and voters having had enough of them in power.
But the gap should be filled by fresh ideas presented eloquently that offer hope for the future.
In the absence of such an approach from Labour in particular, the scene will be set for a campaign dominated by intemperate squabbling. And you could call that dirty.
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