Labour's Rishi Sunak Attack Ad and Why Mimicking Lynton Crosby Sets Them Up to Fail
Labour and the broader left will never win by copying the worst tactics of the Conservative Party
Labour’s decision to launch an attack advert against Rishi Sunak, accusing him of not wanting to lock up paedophiles, is a mistake for several reasons.
The first, and least important reason, is that it’s just not very good.
One of the big lessons from recent decades is that political attacks only work when they chime with what voters already think.
One good example of this is the Conservative Party’s famous attack ad against the then opposition Labour leader Tony Blair, back in 1997. The advert which sought to portray him as representing “New Labour New Danger” was successful in the narrow sense of gaining lots of attention and causing controversy. But it ultimately failed because it didn’t chime with what voters already thought about the then Labour leader.
As Labour’s landslide victory later made clear, voters simply weren’t scared of the party under Blair in the same way that many voters had been under previous leaders.
The same can be said of Labour’s latest attack against Sunak. Nobody, aside from a small number of racists, seriously believes that Sunak personally doesn’t want to lock up paedophiles and trying to suggest otherwise is always going to be a losing game.
The second reason the ad is a mistake is that it merely discredits and distracts from what would otherwise have been a decent attack line for Labour, which is that cuts to the criminal justice system and frontline policing have made tackling these kinds of crimes significantly harder under this Government. It is this basic argument, which Labour’s ad appear to clumsily be making. However, this reasonable argument is lost in the outrage over Labour’s “gutter politics”.
Folded with Adam Bienkov is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The third reason it is a mistake is that it opens Labour up to charges of hypocrisy. The next time the Conservatives try to smear Keir Starmer by associating him with Jimmy Savile, or the wider Labour Party by associating them with child grooming gangs, as the Home Secretary last week attempted to do, then the party will find higher moral ground much harder to locate.
The fourth reason it is a mistake is that the Labour Party and the wider left are just not built to win this sort of dirty, disreputable fight. Over the past 24 hours Twitter has been full of prominent Labour supporters criticising the party for its advert and calling on them to withdraw it, in a way that simply never happens in an equivalent way among right-wingers, whenever the Conservative party tries similar tactics.
A good example of this was when Zac Goldsmith ran his dog-whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan seeking to smear him by association as a Muslim extremist. The campaign, which sent out leaflets to other ethnic minority voters warning that Khan wanted to steal their jewellery, culminated in a Mail on Sunday article written by Goldsmith, in which he accused Labour of being a party that “thinks terrorists are its friends”, and which was illustrated with an actual blown up bus. Needless to say, Twitter was not full of Conservative voices condemning any of these things at the time
Indeed, with the exception of one or two voices on the right, there was almost unanimous silence about Goldsmith’s disgraceful campaign, which was publicly backed at the time by prominent Conservative politicians including Boris Johnson and then Prime Minister Theresa May.
Labour and the broader left will never be capable, or willing, to exercise this sort of message discipline and it’s a good thing that they are not. Indeed, if Labour go into the next election trying to ape the politics of Lynton Crosby, as Kevin Schofield of Huffington Post reports they intend to, then it is highly unlikely to end well for them.
Ultimately though, there are many excellent arguments for Labour to make against Sunak and his Government’s record on issues, including crime, over the past 13 years.
None of them require trying to suggest that Britain’s first British Asian Prime Minister is somehow in league with paedophiles.