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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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