‘The politics of the gutter’: attack ads that show Labour splits

Condemned inside and outside the party, the negative campaigning against the Tory Prime Minister looks to have been devised by figures closely linked to Croydon, writes ANDREW FISHER

Gutter politics: how Croydon MP Steve Reed doubled-down on the vile attack ad

I have no time for Rishi Sunak, his Government or Conservative politics generally. Sunak should be held to account for his government’s abject failures on living standards, the crisis around our NHS and, yes, on crime, too – but I don’t think for one second he’s opposed to paedophiles being locked up.

Yet last week, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party launched a series of online adverts attacking the Prime Minister, causing controversy when the first ad asked “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

This ad, in particular, attracted widespread condemnation, from within the party and other, neutral observers, with veteran political journalist Michael Crick summing it up in a single tweet. Drawing comparisons with the child abuse scandals in Rotherham and Oldham, under Labour administrations, Crick replied to the Labour ad: “This is the politics not of the gutter, but of the sewer.”

Labour’s descent into gutter, or sewer, politics had already been enthusiastically shared by Steve Reed, the MP for Croydon North and the shadow justice secretary. Reed added his own message: “Labour will lock up child abusers. The Conservatives let them off.”

Reed was heavily involved in the ad campaign, along with senior party staff. The New Statesman reported that “the campaign team, led by Morgan McSweeney” had overridden “policy advisers to the shadow cabinet who advocated a more cautious approach”.

Politics of the sewer: Michael Crick’s blunt assessment

McSweeney provides another Croydon connection. A former adviser at Lambeth Council when Reed was a councillor there, McSweeney was once an employee of The Campaign Company, the public relations firm set up in Croydon 20 years ago by David Evans, now the General Secretary of Starmer’s Labour Party, and where McSweeney is today employed as campaigns director.

The paedophile attack ad was condemned by an unlikely coalition of Labour people, including Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and the Home Secretary under Tony Blair, David Blunkett. It even attracted a Twitter advisory notice, something introduced by the platform to deal with Trumpian-style fake news, that had the result of an official Labour Party tweet carrying a link to the Conservative Party’s policy page. Other, similar Labour tweets have also had Twitter health warnings attached since.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary on Starmer’s front bench, was reported to be unhappy with the ad. Cooper has not shared the ad on social media.

Labour’s other local MP, Croydon Central’s Sarah Jones, is the shadow policing minister in Yvette Cooper’s shadow team. Jones, too, has opted not to share the offensive ad.

Labour should hold itself to higher standards. People expect better from Labour – and its support relies on people believing Labour is better. A “senior Labour source” told the press, “One of the reasons people react is because they don’t expect it from us, but Braverman’s dog whistle last week was accepted as par for the course?”

Target of smear briefings: Yvette Copper, shadow Home Secretary, has not shared the attack ad

There’s a reason people don’t expect it from Labour – and I’m far from convinced it’s a negative one. “They do dog-whistle racism so we should be allowed too as well” is not the strong argument the anonymous Labour source evidently thinks it is.

The dog-whistle in this case is putting a photo of an Asian man next to a smear about paedophiles. This builds on Suella Braverman’s detestable comments about British-Pakistani men grooming white girls. Her own Home Office research shows 84per cent of child sex offences are committed by white men.

In July 2020, Steve Reed was forced to delete a tweet accusing Jewish businessman Richard Desmond of being a “puppet-master”, an old antisemitic trope. It seems Labour’s social media standards have fallen since 2020 to allow dog-whistle smears against political opponents.

The other pragmatic problem for Labour in glorying in the politics of the gutter/sewer is that the liberal press is reluctant to amplify it – The Guardian, Independent and i paper all ran pieces that were hostile to the ad, whereas much of the Tory press – The Sun, The Daily Mail and Express – will happily amplify the most degrading smears against their opponents.

Some have suggested that the ad has worked because “it got people talking”.

Putting aside the moral questions for a moment, what if it does work on those terms? The pragmatic case for the ad is somewhat undermined by the fact that much of the talking is about an internal split within what had been presumed to be a fairly united shadow cabinet. This manifested itself with numerous and often vicious briefings against Cooper on the one hand (it was reported that she had not known about the ad in advance of its release), and the condemnations from Labour grandees like Lord Blunkett on the other.

In what feels like a different age, I used to have a role in signing off Labour’s national output. Press releases, adverts and campaign materials would have to go through policy and comms sign off. Broadly speaking, policy would check that it was in line with our agreed policies and factually accurate while the communications team would make sure there was consistency of messaging and it was clearly expressed.

This latest Labour message should have failed both tests.

On policy, the figures on the ad are incorrect, conflating two different crimes within a single definition. Additionally, we have an independent judiciary in this country. So while politicians make the law, judges interpret it, having heard the evidence relating to each specific case.

Warned off: the credibility of the Labour attack ad has been undermined by Twitter’s warning – and a link to the Conservative Party

On comms, my former colleague Carl Shoben (who now works for pollster Survation) pointed out that, “Whenever any ads of this nature were discussed in my time, and politics is always rough, Jeremy (today’s big baddie) always vetoed on the grounds he wanted no personal attacks.”

But even on pragmatic grounds, he added, “The ad is intentionally misleading, is designed to be divisive, and now has a Trump-style warning on it. That looks incredibly bad.” So it failed the comms test, too.

The official Twitter health warning, carried at the foot of the Labour ad, reads like a moderator from a respected fact-checker: “Tweet implies that the PM, Rishi Sunak, doesn’t support prison sentences for sexual assaults against children. The current sentencing guidelines for this crime has a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment…

“There is no conservative party policy that plans to remove this.”

Lawyer friends have also suggested to me the Labour ad could be defamatory – though senior politicians rarely want to involve themselves in drawn-out libel cases in which the original smear is repeated ad nauseam.

Perhaps the more interesting question is “Why?”

Labour is currently 11, 14, 20 and 23 points ahead in the four most recent opinion polls – any of which would secure a Labour majority government. So why choose now to descend into the sewer with personalised smears?

No confidence: while Labour has a ‘soft’ lead in the polls, Starmer is less-trusted by the public than Sunak

What is worrying Labour strategists is that Rishi Sunak has relatively good poll ratings and is neck-and-neck with Starmer, or even holds a slight lead, when the public is asked who would make the better Prime Minister.

Labour is therefore trying to tarnish “brand” Rishi.

Labour has strong poll leads mainly because of the Tories’ collapse – with Labour acting largely as the passive and inoffensive receptacle of anti-Tory sentiment.

Labour’s poll lead was recently described to me by one Labour frontbench MP as “strong but soft”.

Labour strategists are correct to fear a Tory revival with Sunak (he is, after all, less offensive than his two PM predecessors – a low bar admittedly), but a rightward policy drift (in an attempt to consolidate Tory switchers) and more personalised approach (to tarnish Sunak personally) could easily backfire … and no doubt more experienced heads (like Cooper) and MPs in marginal seats (like Croydon’s Sarah Jones) are wary of that.

It will be in interesting to see how Labour’s tactics, and Sunak’s so far modest revival, evolve in the coming months.

One thing is for sure – a descent into sewer politics will do nothing to solve the huge issues we face nationally or locally.

Andrew Fisher’s recent columns:

  • If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at inside.croydon@btinternet.com
  • As featured on Google News Showcase
  • Our comments section on every report provides all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content
  • ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Andrew Fisher, Croydon Central, Croydon North, David Evans, Sarah Jones MP, Steve Reed MP and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to ‘The politics of the gutter’: attack ads that show Labour splits

  1. derekthrower says:

    Yes it is the politics of the sewer, but the Labour left have to explain why it is ok to use such politics against them, but not for them to retaliate with such misdirections against their opponents. Well haven’t they been so successful over the last decade. Andrew can claim the moral high ground for as long as he likes, but he has had a chance and failed. It really is about time that the opposition fight the Tories using their tactics against this spectacular disastrous regime that has impoverished and wrecked the country. If only such Corbynites had the guile to get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate some knowledge of real politik. and please don’t get me on the subject of that holier than though Michael Crick.

  2. Labour has been doing well in the polling with large leads against the Tories without this kind if thing, however those who prepared this forget if you get into the sewer you will come up stinking. The chances are many who thought the Labour Party was better than this will leave it.

    Elections are won by parties offering hope of a better future to the electorate, not by attacking individuals. The elections on 1945, 1964 and 1997 were won by Labour when it offered a change for the better for the country. Ideas and hope win elections, not insults and what are, in effect, thuggish personalised attacks.

    As a result of this advert relating to Sunak, I have resigned from the Labour Party as I have no wish to support a Party which behaves like this. I thought they were better than this; I was mistaken.

  3. derekthrower says:

    Complete claptrap. What hope have the Conservatives offered in their four election victories since 2010. Negative campaigning has won all major election campaigns including the three major referendums since this time. If you can’t face facts then live in a fantasy world.

    • Yep. Derek “Two Wrongs Make A Right” Thrower.

    • A healthy democracy depends upon two things; trust in what is being said bears a resemblance to the truth, and some respect for your opponents, If these elements are absent, democracy will wither. You don’t have to look all that far afield to see the consequences of the absence of trust between politicians.

      Maybe we are moving into a post truth, post democratic age but if we are, I am not looking forward to it.

Leave a Reply