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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.