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An own goal or a home run? Labour play hardball with election ads

Keir Starmer
By Beth Tarling
14 April 2023
Public Affairs
local elections
uk politics
labour party

If you’re wondering how next year’s race for No. 10 could play out, the run up to this year’s local elections is probably a good place to start – and the latest instalment in Labour’s campaign is already causing some controversy.

Over the Easter weekend, Labour received a flurry of criticism – from both its home team and the opposition – as it refused to shelve an advert claiming Rishi Sunak opposes sending child abusers to prison. Conservative Deputy Chair, Lee Anderson, and former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, both labelled it “gutter politics” and Shadow Culture Secretary, Lucy Powell, commented that it wasn’t “to everybody’s taste.”

Yet, Starmer hasn’t backed down. Responding to the outcry, the Labour leader said he makes “absolutely zero apologies” for the campaign which aims to reinstate Labour as the party of law and order amongst the voting public. Indeed, it’s clear that the hardball (or some might say, on-the-nose) approach to campaigning could be here to stay – the latest Labour poster this time lashing out at the PM for “raising taxes for working people” while his family “benefitted from the non-dom tax loophole”, a swipe at the PM’s wife.

It’s the type of attacking politics you might be more familiar with seeing in a US election. But will it work for Labour on home ground?

On one hand, Carl Shoben – former director of Labour strategy under Corbyn – questioned the need for a party “twenty points ahead in the polls” and “fighting a local election about potholes” to employ highly personalised attack ads, proposing that they were borne out of a fear that the Conservatives would “get there first”. Conservative party peer Lord Hayward also waded in, calling the adverts a “misstep”, and adding that “British people don’t like unpleasant, personalised attacks.”

Others have heralded the ads a success – they’ve got people talking, after all – and one may question whether Lord Hayward’s statement in particular is true. Whilst the likes of US sport haven’t caught on across the pond, the same might not be said for how we do politics. The Vote Leave campaign is now notorious for using ‘big talk’ and factually dubious slogans, slapped across everything from the digital space to the side of a bus, to win hearts and minds – and rather successfully too. Fast forward to now, the controversy around the Labour ads has resulted in the party landing an unusually positive front page from the Daily Mail, as well as an op-ed by Starmer in the same publication.

Looking at the two contenders for the premiership, it’s no wonder that highly personalised politics are the dish of the day, especially in a Britain where the role of PM has arguably become more presidential. The polls indicate that Starmer is less popular than his party, exposing a vulnerability that the Conservatives would be remiss not to act upon. Meanwhile, unlike some of his predecessors, Sunak is generally viewed as a competent party leader and Prime Minister – something which the Labour Party will quite clearly seek to undermine.

In today’s political landscape it’s likely, then, that the question was never about whether Labour should adopt a no-holds-barred attitude to campaigning, but rather when, and how forcefully. Rightly or wrongly, it seems that unapologetic, attacking campaigns are here to stay, and the next General Election could be the nastiest showdown yet.