Labour scapegoats “inept” campaigning

All the focus in this morning’s reportage of the Crewe & Nantwich by-election has, naturally, been on what it signifies for the next general election. My interest is somewhat nerdier but potentially, I think, more significant for the future of politics than the question of whether Tweedledum or Tweedledumber will be running the country after 2009.

Matthew Taylor, former head of Labour’s policy unit, was just on the Today programme laying the blame for the loss of Crewe & Nantwich squarely at the door of an “inept” campaign strategy. The campaign, lest we need reminding, saw activists wearing top hats and the Crewe Labour website adopting a front page which suggested the Tory candidate was a con man (subsequently replaced, I see, with something less overtly offensive and equally desperate). The kind of self-conscious “nasty” stuff that campaigning tacticians insist always, always works. Labour insiders insisted exactly that during this campaign – that they had at least moved the talk of the town off the 10p fudge and on to Labour’s dreadful campaign tactics, which is a sort of vindication, I suppose. None of that defence was in evidence this morning.

Jim Naughtie rightly (not three words often seen in association) picked Taylor up on this – so either Downing Street didn’t send anyone good to Crewe, or they weren’t listened to when they got there. Which is it? Danny Finkelstein corrected (there we go again) the position aptly: Labour ran a bad campaign because they are in trouble, they’re not in trouble because they ran a bad campaign.

In order to answer Naughtie’s question, I’ll just remind you of the local Labour leader’s response when asked about the top hat/con men stunts. “You’ll have to ask the experts.” This was a central campaign, all right. If it worked, it was going to be redeemed as a bit of fun, but since it failed, it is the ready trussed-up scapegoat. And its success or failure was purely dependent on the existing party weather.

If you doubt this, look at the Tories’ merry distribution of 8,000 people’s data to a Manx radio station (I’d love to know how that happened, by the way. How do you accidentally send something to the Isle of Man?) If that had been Labour, it would have been heralded as the final death knell and the swing to the Tories would have been even stronger. As it is, the punters on Andrew Sparrow’s live blog greeted the news with near-indifference when a Lib Dem councillor raised it. They were not, I think, doubting that the blunder had actually taken place. They were merely questioning whether it was all that important – after all, if it had been “serious” wouldn’t the media have indicated this to them by making more of a fuss?

I would like to think that evangelicals for negative campaigning across all parties are watching and taking note of this. I am increasingly troubled by the intellectual bankruptcy of negative campaigning and the way people continue to believe that it works no matter what happens. It seems the proponents of negative campaigning literally cannot lose an argument. If we do well, it’s because of negative campaigning. If we do badly, it would have been even worse had it not been for the negative campaigning. There are probably dreadfully keen types out there this very minute theorising that we were squeezed in Crewe because we didn’t do enough negative campaigning. Heads I win, tails you lose.

It’s not just the cynicism on show in Labour’s approach to Crewe that turns the stomach. I’m sick of the sheer uncritical stupidity of negative campaigning. I’m sick of the way the proponents of negativity wave their willies around – yeah, well, you gotta be prepared to play hardball in this game, there are no points for Mr Nice Guy, hur hur hur, just as well you called me in… It’s all just a great big wank for them, probably a great big compensatory wank for having been bullied at school.

If Crewe tells us anything about the future of politics in this country beyond the purely literal, it is that very negative spin, like very positive spin, only works if the wind is in your favour. Self-appointed hardball-playing cretinous wankers of all affiliations should take note.

22 Comments

  1. What sort of campaign could Labour fight. Voters have finally woken up to the fact that rather than have a Tory Government called New Labour they will be no worse off voting for the real Tory party. This ought to give us a huge opportunity to be the only true opposition.

    By the way even wankers have some co-ordination between mind & hand. Does Labour?

  2. Yup, absolutely agree. All the more reason for us to abandon all negative campaigning ourselves. The closer the other two float, the less need there is to resort to negative ways of differentiating ourselves. We are entering a period where the positives will speak for themselves if we let them.

  3. Negative campaigning works when it resonates with something the voters feel. This is why Hillary’s infamous ‘3AM’ ad got some traction because it resonated with a real fear that some Democratic voters have about Obama’s inexperience.

    Conversly it didnt work for Labour and came across as mean-spirited because a) people didnt care too much for the messenger and b) people didnt feel it was relevant. If, for example, Labour had made more of the fact that despite all their wailing and nashing of teeth the Conservatives dont actually want to do anything concrete about the 10p tax band (other than act as lightening rod for voters resentment) let alone restore it then they might have got more traction, they might even have succeded where the toff campaign failed and driven a wedge between Timpson and the voters.

    Negative campaigning, ie, discrediting your opponents ideas is fine as long as it is coupled with a positive message about your own and this is again where Labour fall down because the party is a giant black hole of creative thinking…..

  4. As deplorable, childish, pathetic, insulting and xenophobic as the Labour campaign was, the simple fact is that there were enough voters out there who were pissed off enough to vote against Labour anyway – regardless of how bad the campaign turned out to be. such is the anger against Labout that the Tories didn’t even have to really DO that much…..

    It was interesting and very depressing to still see Tamsin Dunwoody and Steve McCabe still defending the campaign as a ‘bit of fun’, even after the defeat.

  5. Sorry Alix, I’ve got to split a hair with you on this one.

    I’m against negative campaigning, but it’s not as simple as that – it isn’t enough to be all shiny, happy and positive everywhere all of the time – putting an overly-shiny gloss on things can be counterproductive too.

    If I’m going to stand up for anything it’s for honest campaigning – the reason the ‘tory toff’ line was wrong was mainly because it was exposed as hypocrisy (not just because it should be irrelevant), and therefore ceded any advantage to the tories who could play the victim.

    In many a campaign I’ve seen people claim credit where none is due, selectively presenting facts (barcharts…) and failing to accurately address the issues in order of priority – each of which amount to misrepresentation.

    If you want to gain the trust and respect of the public and win a mandate it is no good playing to their prejudices or pulling the wool over our eyes.

    We need to know the all the relevant facts, straight and plain as it comes – no illusions means no disillusion: no hopes, no fears.

  6. Alix, I wonder what it is which motivates the obvious strength of feeling which you display towards negative campaigning here. Something tells me it isn’t simply anger at Labour’s campaign in Crewe & Nantwich.

    At any rate, I think the positive-negative dichotomy is a false one; all political campaigning which involves standing *for* something meaningful necessitates standing *against* something else. The fact that Labour chose to spell out that they stood “against Tory toffs” in Crewe as much as “for ordinary working people” (which they chose to articulate with the oddly sinister phrase “one of us”) is really neither here nor there. If voters had liked the message, in its positive or negative guise, it would have played better than it did.

    I think perhaps the point to play here is more that campaigning shouldn’t be about character assassination. It’s legitimate to point out, for instance, that the Tories aren’t on the side of middle and low income people, because so far their economic policy has emphasized tax cuts which would mostly benefit the rich. But the point is to trust the public to understand that argument in the abstract, rather than trying to drag it down to the stultifying level of discourse which Labour did in Crewe.

    Negativity towards your opponents is an integral part of political campaigning if campaigning is to achieve anything: if you don’t disagree with your opponent about *something*, why are you standing against them? The point is to keep it civilised, and stay off the ad hominem attacks.

  7. The other problem with negative campaigning is that even if it works, it reduces the votes of the party you’re knocking but doesn’t necessarily increase yours. For instance all the Lib Dem knocking of Boris as not being not a serious candidate in the mayoral election just boosted Ken’s vote, who obviously was. Ken’s vote ended up increased.

  8. It’s partly because I, personally, hate complacent circle-jerk bullshit above almost anything else – and the only place I’ve detected any hint of it in the Lib Dems is when discussions of negative campaigning come along. It’s my least favourite trait of anyone under any circumstances. So I’m on a short fuse as far as that goes.

    It’s also because I saw what relentlessly negative campaigning did for us in London – most appallingly, the scaremongering we’ll-all-be-murdered-in-our-beds crime message.

    The aim of marketing is, of course, to change people’s minds. It’s all very well for people to say that we must go to the voters – but that doesn’t mean slavishly agreeing with them on every conceivable point because that’s (a) useless in terms of getting them to vote for us and (b) patronising.

    It’s like Clegg said when asked whether he would do what people told him at his town hall meetings. He said, no, I’d argue my case. Damn right. People aren’t made of glass. They’re perfectly able to defend their opinions, and it would be condescending of Clegg not to argue his point to them.

    If you overegg the whole “going to where people are” thing, if you actually affirm everything they already believe, then you don’t give them a reason to vote for you – with results as Jon outlines. You do half the work, but you don’t then offer the alternative suggestion that makes them think, “Hey, yeah…”

    All of which is much what you then say, and of course I agree that there has to be negative campaigning in the sense that we must make it absolutely clear what we *don’t* stand for. I just don’t see the point of doing that and nothing else.

    To take the classic example – the 2005 election was run on the basis of being (a) opposed to the Iraq war and (b) in favour of free tuition, under the overall banner of “The real alternative”. A perfectly balanced positives and negatives message which offered an impressionistic picture of what a Lib Dem government might be like. And though I fully accept that we garnered protest votes for the war that we won’t get again, there’s no reason why success of a similar order shouldn’t be repeated with a similarly vivid message.

    [whispers] How are your zams going?

  9. Death to the Bar Chart! Hurrah!

    [whispers] Zams start on Tuesday. I finished noting it all yesterday, so theoretically today was start learning it all, starting with stats. But a general not-in-the-moodness has rather challenged that plan.

    Why are we whispering? [/whispers]

  10. I think that we need to distinguish between ‘negative campaigning’ and ‘negative campaigning’.

    The first definition of the term would be something like this: ‘to campaign against the policies of one’s opponents rather than in favour of one’s own policies’. The second definition, the one that I think the public are referring to when they (anecdotally, since I am on a train and have no stats to hand) complain about negative campaigning would be something like: ‘to attack one’s opponents on personal grounds rather than to engage with the issues’.

    When we talk about being ‘negative’ in the first example, we are using the word in its literal sense (like the good rationalists that we are), to mean that the campaign is intended to negate the positive arguments of our opponents. In the second example, we are using negative to mean ‘generally a bit mean-spirited and unfriendly’. I’m quite sure that the latter is what most people are talking about when they complain about negative campaigning. I don’t think that anyone could complain about us pointing out what’s wrong with our opponents’ ideas (or lack thereof). They’d be right to complain if we did so whilst suggesting that our opponents are wrong because they are all congenitally stupid, owing to their borderline insanity/incurable toffness/lack of good education/slightly too good education (delete as applicable). Of course, we have to put forward a positive vision, but we should never retreat from challenging our opponents.

  11. Thanks Rob, a good articulation of my point from the opposite end, as it were. I was trying to argue that, in the course of our own internal, rational debate, we should not accept the use of the word “negative” in a colloquial sense, but try to isolate what it is about what people call “negative campaigning” that we actually object to, if it isn’t the actual negation part.

    You’ve called it “to attack one’s opponents on personal grounds rather than to engage with the issues,” I called it “character assassination [and] … ad hominem attacks, [rather than] keeping it civilised [and] trusting the public to understand the argument in the abstract.” I think probably yours is rather clearer!

  12. The public are more sophisticated than they are given credit for. Despite what the utter scum who read the Daily Mail may think, we are the best educated & most intelligent generation this country has ever had.

    The days when repulsive campaigns like this could work, and a few dog-whistles could blind people to the government’s wretched record, are long over. Now, in the 21st century, we see a time when fuckers like Camoron have to pretend to be liberal. And in 20 years time, they actually will have to be liberal, because people will be able to see through such lies as he is currently telling.

    This was by no means a victory for Camoron, though having said that none of his recent predecessors would have won by such a large margin. We just have to wait for incompetent frauds like Boris Johnson to fail before we can reap the reward, as the party which represents the future and faces down the old-timers who fear & hate modern Britain.

  13. it would be foolish to discount or underestimate opponents, Asquith.

    It strikes me he is a Peelite who wants to forge a more centrist powerbase in the Tories, in contrast to the original grouping (including a youthful Gladstone) who saw merger with, and moderation of, the radicalism in the old Liberals as their route to power.

    I think he fully understands parliamentary tactics, but whether he is in touch with the public remains highly dubious.

    Don’t get too squiffy on us, old boy.

  14. I’ve actually considered the Cameron/Peel connection before. I take him more seriously than you might think. I know my post wasn’t the best of all time…

    Although I tend not to say this in certain quarters, as an economic liberal & general moderate, I could almost be a Cameroon. The main thing that put me off was the persistence of the 80s headbangers. The biggest specific stumbling block was their wanton attitude towards the environment.

    Also, a lot of them are warmongering authoritarians, and those who criticise Labour’s jihad against civil liberties often do so insincerely: they would support these things if a Tory government did them, & were nowhere to be seen when Michael Howard as home secretary proposed much of what Bliar and clunking fist have done. Where were the “libertarians” in 2005?

    I think it’s at least theoretically possible to work with Cameroons, but we can’t delude ourselves into thinking Cameroons are strong & will hold if put to the test.

    And remember, Labour cultivated us before 1997, & we know that they were not remotely liberal once they won. Perhaps Cameron will do teh same.

  15. I think the votes on the various bits of the embryology bill give the lie to Cameroons and their liberalism. Lib dems were split firmly down the middle between themselves on pretty much all the votes, but the Tories voted uniformly AGAINST anything which might possibly be portrayed as liberalising or progressive…

  16. Have to disagree on the ‘Death to the Bar Chart point’. Certanly death to misleading or just plain stupid bar charts, but bar charts are (sadly) an invaluable way of countering both other parties’ negative messages that ‘the Lib Dems can’t win here, so don’t waste your votes on them’.

    Being active in an area where we currently have no councillors and do come a relatively poor third in general elections, it’s very easy at council elections for Lab/Con to say there’s no point voting for us. But bar charts coupled with a message that resonates shows in 2 seconds that there is a point in voting for our positive message in this area, as we actually can.

  17. I like the example of Peelism as a form of power politics which helps inform ways in which to plot a path to government – Cameron has obviously been taking notes – but the question remains how to combine it with the simultaneous promotion of policy (not just advertisments for vague future promises).

    Maybe I’m too open-minded, but I’m thinking Clegg’s theatrics will be enough to get him into the position of official opposition, but could be too much to allow him to take the next step.

    I’m all for decentralisation of and in policy, but doesn’t that mean the LibDems need to develop more of a team ethic rather than simply promoting the top-bod (Clegg) and relying on established players (Cable)?

    Even in reading the mini-guide I find nothing offensive, but I still get the sense that something is missing, or am I missing something? I’m growing in sympathy with you lot of LibDems all the time and I like the eternal optimism that government can be reached in a generation, but isn’t there a little bit too much to be taken on trust?

    I mean, I’m in contact with my local group and everything and you’re all talking me towards membership, but something has yet to click to convince me that it’s worthwhile.

  18. Not quite sure where death to the barchart came in. They are essential to generate tactical voting in your direction and cannot die before the golden age of STV – and possibly not even then! If we give up on barcharts we say yes to being mercilessly squeezed in every election.

    In any area it is usually possible to come up with a truthfull barchart based on some combination of results or canvas data that shows you in a close 2nd place and that some other party “can’t win here”.

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