Conservative election campaign manager Lynton Crosby arrives at Downing Street on October 16, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Without a record of delivery, the Tories are reliant on Crosby's campaign of division

The Conservatives' negative approach reveals a party bereft of ideas or empathy for working families.

As we approach an election that will determine the future of our country, David Cameron is leading a party of the past. A dark tide of negative campaigning heralds the return of nasty politics by the nasty party. The Tories are offering the British people nothing but a failing plan based on an outdated and damaging philosophy that national success depends on the success of a privileged few at the top with working families dragged along behind.

And it is now clear they are desperate to cling on to power by any means available. In recent days we have seen the extent to which the Tory campaign relies on a small pool of elite donors, having now taken £55m from hedge funds. We have seen concern grow over the intrusive proliferation of online attack adverts. We have seen the Tories embroiled in accusations that their staff have been plotting ways to smear Labour MPs. Theresa May has even been forced to urge her party to stay positive.

This is no surprise given Lynton Crosby is running the Tory campaign. And running it he is. Every strategic decision runs through the man who one cabinet minister joked "has replaced David Cameron as leader". Crosby campaigns are known for relying on personal attacks and a politics of fear. He has been described as "employing ruthless attack politics", deploying techniques that "dig out feelings of prejudice, fear, selfishness", and running campaigns described as "very nasty".

Take a few examples. Crosby directed the 2001 Australian federal election which was tainted by an incident in which the campaign falsely alleged that immigrants were throwing children overboard to gain access to Australia. The New Zealand 2005 election, which Crosby was involved in, came under fire for using a controversial billboard poster some called "racist". Crosby is currently involved in a court case in Australia involving accusations of push polling.

It is alarming, therefore, that the Conservatives seem to be running an off-the-shelf, identikit Crosby-Textor campaign. Recent Tory attack videos on Ed Miliband are almost identical to those used in the 2004 Liberal Party Campaign, on which Crosby worked as a consultant. The Tories are using the exact same design of graphics Crosby and Textor used for the National Party in the 2005 New Zealand election. "Competence vs Chaos" has become the central to the Tory campaign, but has apparently been directly lifted from language Mark Textor originally crafted for a New Zealand campaign. "Stay the course" is a common Cameron refrain, and this too was stolen from the September 2014 New Zealand election managed by Textor.

It is clear where the Tories' negative campaigning has its origins. From the "Go Home" vans to the personal attack videos with photoshopped images, from the scaremongering letters peddling falsehoods about Labour policy to Cameron's PR stunt in the home of people suspected of immigration offences, this is a campaign of smear and fear which is only going to descend further. When David Cameron talks about the choice at the next election remember the sight of Tory cabinet ministers lining up to back the Daily Mail in attacking Ed Miliband's late father.

Even Lord Gummer has said of the Tories' activity that it "seems to be far too close to American and Australian name calling, which is so unpleasant and so counterproductive." The Tories' plan has failed and so they are relying on negative campaigning. They cannot run on a record of delivery so they are running a campaign of division. They have raised election spending limits to give them maximum advantage with their elite donors. They changed voter registration rules, which has shut young people out of voting. And now they are relying on attempts to slur their opponents.

Whilst Labour of course warns against the dangers of five more years of the Tories, we are also putting forward a better plan for a better future. In recent days we have laid out our plan to build prosperity and raise living standards for all, announced our policy to protect education spending above Tory plans and revealed the growth in our small donations. We will not stoop to the Tories' depths. We will not fight the election by Aussie Rules. Our campaign is not based on big money or speaking over the heads of the British people. We are fighting this election on the ground with millions of doorstep conversations in which we will look voters in the eye and seek to rebuild trust in politics, town by town, street by street.

The Tories' Crosby campaign reveals a party bereft of ideas or empathy for working families. There is a choice at the next election: only Labour has a plan for a better future.

Lucy Powell is vice chair of Labour's general election campaign and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”