A column is not a political party. It is ill-disciplined. It neither pounds the streets nor leaflets. On principle, it attends no meetings. So this column can say the following: Labour’s attack ads targeting Rishi Sunak for being soft on child sex offenders are disgraceful and a strategic error by Keir Starmer.
Many of Starmer’s natural supporters feel let down, a bit winded and bruised. I began by thinking that the social media ads – and there are many more to come – were a here-today, gone-tomorrow Westminster bubble story, of little significance to voters. This may prove true. But it deserves our full attention, because it reveals something about the culture of British politics and its future.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that personalised attack politics is something the Conservatives cannot complain about, because they are past masters of this faecal art. Labour leaders such as Neil Kinnock and Jeremy Corbyn were on the receiving end of brutally unfair and cynical attacks, often starting in the House of Commons and then amplified across the Tory press.
In more recent times, Starmer was subject to vicious attacks from Boris Johnson, with “Sir Crasheroonie Snoozefest”, “the human bollard”, and the Jimmy Savile smear. I wonder whether Starmer’s fierce defence of the personalised attacks against Sunak followed directly from the Prime Minister’s willingness to quote Johnson and call the Labour leader “just another typical lefty lawyer”, and then let the press amplify the insult.
Gloves off? Gloves off, then. For more than a century, Tory politicians have had the benefit of a skilled, biased, popular and rampantly aggressive press to do their dirtiest work. Now, as the traditional media loses much of its popular appeal – particularly for younger voters – and the social media platforms used by the Labour team hugely increase theirs, the game is changing.
Let’s remind ourselves of the detail. “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.” And the small print justification? “Under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time.”
It is reasonable to use this shocking statistic to criticise government policy – albeit that sentencing is a matter for the judiciary, and that Starmer was once involved in drawing up sentencing guidelines. What made the ad controversial, however, was linking the consequences of a penal policy and the personal view of a politician not involved in that penal policy.
It’s similar to saying that people in 1982 who were uneasy about the Falklands task force “delighted” in handing British people to Argentine dictators; or that politicians opposed to the death penalty “gloried” in the murder of police officers – the kind of rhetorical hyperextension, you might say, certain right-wing papers sometimes apply to Labour. Is somebody inside the Conservative Party’s central office working on adverts based on Labour and the junior doctors’ strike, accusing Starmer of wanting cancer victims to die early? Remember John McDonnell’s response to the attack ad: “We are better than this.”
I understand that Starmer is a man of pride, not rhinoceros hide. For years he has had to turn his cheek while biting his tongue, an awkward posture. Shouldn’t the centre left, rather than whingeing about the brutality of the attack ad, celebrate the levelling of the playing field?
Absolutely not. Here’s why. First, in purely tactical terms the attack ad was a mistake. Now that the Labour leadership has quit the moral high ground, it will find it near-impossible to clamber back up there again. Moral authority is hard to win, particularly in modern times, and very easy to lose for good.
This means that when further personal attacks come from the Tory side, there is no appeal. It takes us closer to a general election characterised by the lowest common denominator, each side throwing dirt at the other. This is both a depressing prospect and will create a contest without idealism or enthusiasm for genuine political-cultural change, which will not benefit the centre left. Far from energising voters, it will encourage them to turn their backs.
Alongside this, there’s a laddishness, a self-delighted savagery in these attacks which brings to mind the worst of the Alastair Campbell era. We read, although I have not yet seen, that there are more attacks coming over the economy (good), but which are aimed at Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty (not good). The team behind the ads are said to be cock-a-hoop at how much controversy and interest they have raised. They want to double down, go further, raise the stakes.
Lads, please don’t. Please don’t. I say this as a journalist who doesn’t face the kind of personal abuse that leading politicians have to absorb day after day; I am at one stage removed and can afford to don dog collar and surplice. Easy for me. (You see, I’m bending over backwards to be fair, to the point where my head is swimming.)
For even in very hard times, when millions are struggling desperately to survive, this country isn’t yet politically brutalised. Respect, fairness and a sense of innate moderation are more ingrained than those in Westminster might think. Indeed, they are an important underlying part of the opposition case. The impression is that Labour, well ahead in the polls overall, is becoming spooked by the rise in Sunak’s personal numbers. YouGov shows that people find him increasingly likeable – although they remain completely unconvinced by the Tories’ overall performance. As I have written here before, it is squeaky-bum time for the opposition.
Indeed, there is a genuine problem for Labour: how do you ensure that the electorate judges the Conservatives on their 13-year record, rather than by a flurry of activity over recent months from a new prime minister, who appears friendlier and more competent than his predecessors?
You do it, I think, not by trying to shock people into changing their opinion of Sunak, but by relentlessly focusing on the brokenness of Britain. The court system isn’t working – true. The health service is – as Starmer frequently points out – on its face rather than its knees. Across the great cities, people don’t trust the police. The rivers are oily sewers and the beaches are acrid dumps. We haven’t got the growth, or the skills; and we certainly haven’t got the housing, and we haven’t got the cutting-edge technology, including new nuclear, that we so desperately need. When people switch to Labour in large numbers – as they will – it’ll be because of those issues, not because they are annoyed about Sunak’s wife’s father’s extreme wealth.
So, although it might seem odd to devote time to a few hastily assembled digital advertisements, the problem is that they may lead Labour in a profoundly dangerous direction.
It’s important for the whole country that the election is fought and won on deep policy issues. As I’ve argued before, after the pandemic and the economic shock of the Ukraine war, we live in an era when the state is going to have to be more powerful, and much more effective. This plays well for parties who believe in the power of the state to improve daily life, but less well for parties who fundamentally don’t.
We are at the start of a long, hard period of post-Brexit national rebuilding which will require patience and trust. The hard right wants to deflect by plunging us into culture wars and personality politics; the best response of the centre left is to focus on the economy and long-term thinking. Starmer, I believe, understands this.
Thus far, Starmer gives every impression of being a lucky opposition leader, which matters more than anything else. The chaos inside the SNP, which has begun far more quickly than anyone expected, is lucky for Starmer. He has taken Labour an extraordinarily long way in just three years and he would make, in his capacity for hard work, self-discipline, patriotism and interest in forthright policy, a good prime minister.
Every opposition leader must be ruthless. Starmer’s behaviour towards Jeremy Corbyn, (“I know thee not, old man” – an unlikely King Henry to an even less likely Falstaff) shows his steel. But ruthlessness is not the same thing as cynicism. And even cynical attack ads only work if enough people see a kernel of truth in them. How many voters, I wonder, genuinely think that Sunak wants paedophiles wandering about freely? There is a good argument to be had about the cost of allowing the prison system and the judicial system to decay so badly: but bellowing “paedo” at anyone we disagree with has become a grim national game. We don’t need any more of it.
No doubt, in pursuit of the Labour Party’s five missions, a significant amount of urgent policy work is going on which will be revealed over the next 12 months. I hope that this will bury the spate of attack advertising we have seen over Easter; and that a swaggering laddishness won’t follow Starmer into No 10.
Does this seem sanctimonious? I’m sure that to a lot of readers, it will. But we have been the prisoners of a degraded political culture, which turns away the best people and encourages a general retreat from the public sphere. This is a moment for a different direction; for idealism and pride. So, when we are beckoned in the opposite direction, it is moderately important to say – no.
Andrew Marr will deliver the State of the Nation lecture at Cambridge Literary Festival on 23 April. Tickets are available here
This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue