Does negative campaigning work?

Labour and the Tories shouldn't give up on the pointed attacks just yet.

In today's Times, Daniel Finkelstein urges the Tories to avoid the temptation to resort to negative campaigning, arguing that it is neither ethical nor effective. Finkelstein's words reflect the intense debate taking place at CCHQ over campaign strategy, one that has pitted David Cameron's director of strategy, Steve Hilton, against his media Rottweiler, Andy Coulson.

Coulson (described by one Tory MP as "out of control") was responsible for the party's ill-fated tombstone poster attacking Labour's (non-existent) "death tax". By contrast, Hilton, who is determined to ensure that the Tories run a postive campaign, is thought to be behind this week's upbeat "I've never voted Tory before . . ." series.

Finkelstein's argument against negative campaigning is twofold. First, he argues that negative attacks risk making Cameron -- whose image is the party's "most important asset" -- seem "petty, partisan and mean-spirited". Second, he claims that there is no point in the Tories running a negative campaign because the voters have already made up their mind about Gordon Brown.

I'm not convinced on either count. First, it is perfectly possible for parties to run negative campaigns at a distance from their leader. Labour's recent two-faced Cameron poster -- which avoided all mention of Gordon Brown -- is a good example. Part of the Tories' problem is that they are still too dependent on Cameron's political skills. They lack an attack dog to rival Peter Mandelson.

Second, although most voters aren't going to change their minds at this stage, Finkelstein should remember that, under our electoral system, small swings in public opinion can have a huge effect.

I'd also question his positive/negative dichotomy. Rather, there is effective campaigning (postive and negative) and ineffective campaigning. The problem with the tombstone poster wasn't that it was negative, but that it was disingenuous. It failed to resonate because it attacked a policy that Labour hadn't actually adopted.

As a rule, negative campaigning will backfire if it's insincere or hypocritical. Michael Howard's attempt to brand Tony Blair a "liar" at the 2005 election failed because it made the Tories' full-throated support for the Iraq war in 2003 look naive. By contrast, Labour's 2001 poster morphing William Hague's face with an image of Margaret Thatcher's hair (a copy of which Alastair Campbell keeps on his wall) worked well, because it reflected Hague's political priorities accurately.

The best argument against negative attacks is that they can damage the political system at large and encourage apathy. But if the Tories want to be sure of victory they'd be wise not to rule out a return to negative campaigning.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.