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28 March 2024

Is Sadiq Khan as innocent in the attack ads scandal as he claims?

The Conservatives have been condemned for publishing untruths about the London mayor – but Labour is also capable of degrading the tenor of debate.

By Freddie Hayward

A pattern is emerging: one political party releases an attack advert at an angle to the truth; then the target decries a descent into Trumpian politics, before publishing their own montage that mangles reality to trigger fear in the pursuit of votes.

It’s a tit-for-tat online wrestle. Both parties have embraced the memeified derision at which social media excels. Adverts that barely resemble the truth aren’t new. Remember Vote Leave’s warning that Turkey was joining the EU, or the Conservatives’ line that Gordon Brown released 80,000 criminals early.

Digital teams in each party have now dunked themselves in internet culture in order to grab the millions of clicks on offer. Trump’s finely tuned nicknames take the legs out of his opponents, undermining their credibility in a couple of words. British politicians have not yet added derisory nicknames to their rhetorical inventory, but they’ve noticed the potential rewards of dropping the professional tone. The BBC Six O’Clock News gets around four million views. One of the anti-Khan attack ads has received six million views on Twitter in just three days.

The ads depict London as a crime-ridden metropolis that Sadiq Khan rules as a malicious tyrant. Imagine an Adam Curtis fan producing the opening to a 1970s Batman film. The mock American accent and the footage of New York suggest Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) wasn’t chasing verisimilitude.

And that’s partly why the ads have caused uproar. The video erroneously claims that Khan “seized” London even though he was elected twice. This might be forgiven as an enthusiastic use of metaphor if suggesting Khan was in some way anti-democratic hadn’t become a Tory pastime.

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Khan was quick to condemn the Conservatives’ attack adverts. But Labour is not as virtuous as it would like to be portrayed. The party isn’t above making adverts that degrade the tenor of the debate. Take a look at this website with the domain name “susanhall.uk”:


At the bottom of the website it says: “Promoted by Pearleen Sangha on behalf of London Labour, both at 57-59 Great Suffolk Street, London, SE1 0BB.”

One London Labour source was unapologetic, calling it a “nonsense comparison… [this website is] simply reporting things that the Tory candidate has herself said, as opposed to lying and making things up which is what they have done in their desperate video.”

It’s true that the website isn’t as untruthful as the Tory attack ads. But it’s hard not to interpret the domain name “susanhall.uk” as an attempt to make people think this is an official website, not least when the party seems to have paid around £4,000 for the website to sit atop search engine results. Others might raise an eyebrow at conflating Hall’s concerns about crime in the black community, Black Lives Matter and Notting Hill Carnival with prejudice against all black Londoners.

Westminster is usually spared embarrassment by the fact that these adverts are often posted on Facebook and other social media sites politicos rarely use. But when they are posted on Twitter – as CCHQ did with the anti-Khan videos – they quickly attract condemnation.

The truth is that normal people rarely engage with the daily minutiae of Westminster coverage. To use a word forever on editors’ lips, politicians often lack “cut through”. Provoking outrage through memes and provocative websites is a way for them to increase their presence online, and not merely be the object of derision. And that’s why this new approach to campaigning is not going away.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Who killed Thames Water?]

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