By Tim Montgomerie
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Every voter complains that they hate negative campaigning but every political party engages in it. Are these parties stupid? Are they flying blind? Or do they understand us better than we know ourselves? I fear the answer to the third question is ‘yes’.
But before thinking about negative campaigning at the next election a few foundational thoughts.
Elections are won and lost because of fundamental factors. Is the economy essentially strong? Is crime under control? Are public services improving? Does the government appear competent? Is the PM/ Leader of the Opposition “up to it”? Are the Conservatives/ Labour/ Liberal Democrats united and cohesive? Do the political parties understand people like me? Has X, Y or Z kept his or her promises?
Political campaigning has two major roles to play in turning the available raw material (the fundamental factors) into something of advantage to the cause it serves.
Role one is to increase the salience of some issues and reduce the salience of others. When voters go into the polling booth at the next election they could be thinking of any number of things. Their personal finances. Ed Miliband. The state of the NHS. George Osborne. The level of immigration. The anger of some Tory MPs towards Cameron. The quality of their local schools. The price of petrol or the cost of train travel. Labour’s links to the unions. UKIP’s promise to hold a referendum on the EU. The fact that the Greens might be the only party talking about climate change. HS2. Government U-turns. David Cameron’s standing on the world stage etc etc etc. A good campaign will neutralise the weaknesses and turbo-charge the strengths.
The second role is to take a strength or weakness and REALLY understand and then exploit it. Why, for example, is Ed Miliband a weakness for Labour? The things that Tory politicians like least about the Labour leader might not be the things that most worry swing voters. Is it a weakness that he stood against his own brother for the party leadership? Is he a drag on the Labour offering because of his links to the trade union movement? Is his inexperience his main problem? Or is his detachment from heartland Labour concerns about crime, immigration and welfare a problem? A big weakness now (the David Miliband factor, for example) is likely to be less potent by 2015 (his failure to develop a coherent economic policy might, by then, become a much bigger problem for Labour).
Political parties have much more money to spend on political research than newspapers. The Conservative Party is in a position to tell friendly journalists where to point their pens if they really want to do damage to Mr Miliband. Tory MPs need to be told which words and messages to use when they talk about him. Tory research can also discover new weaknesses. The Boris campaign, for example, had information about Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs long before they deployed it. The information was deployed with maximum effect during the campaign and Ken Livingstone never really recovered from the revelations. Another relatively recent example of highly effective negative campaigning was in 2004 when John Kerry’s presidential campaign was completely knocked off course by the Swift Boat Veterans’ attack on his war record. The campaign was decried at the time as far too negative but it had a terrible impact on Kerry’s ratings and, crucially, it wasn’t pursued by the George W Bush campaign but by an independent campaign (the ‘independence’ of these ‘surrogates’ being much disputed).
It’s not often I disagree with Lord Ashcroft, this website’s owner, but in last Thursday’s Guardian he warned that a Tory onslaught against Ed Miliband could backfire. Commenting on a draft Tory plan to paint the Labour leader as a British equivalent of Michael Dukakis – “part of a metropolitan elite with no understanding of mainstream concerns” – he warned that this would be a “terrible idea”. David Cameron, Michael warned, was not invulnerable to the same charge. Second, Labour-inclined voters appear to be voting for the party despite Miliband so an attack would have little effect. Third, an onslaught on Miliband would distract the Conservatives from the more important task of crafting a positive appeal for the party.
I agree completely with Michael’s third point. It is essential we go into the next election with a positive message. The Tories need a message of (1) economic renewal, (2) of hope for blue collar Britain and also (3) an “EU veto moments” agenda that can re-unite the centre right.
But if I agree that attacking Ed Miliband is not enough I think we would be negligent if we go into the next election without maximising the Ed Miliband factor. All focus groups and research suggest he is a huge weakness for Labour. Our attacks on Ed Miliband cannot be unresearched (we can’t afford another Big Society error) and should not be personal but we need to ensure he is a prominent factor in voters’ minds when they go into the polling booth. We need to find fresh material for the campaign so that doubts about Ed Miliband that might be subsiding are refreshed. We need to ensure the next election is not a referendum on our record but a choice – a choice between the Conservatives and between the Miliband/Balls proposition.
The best negative campaigns capture what voters already think about a political party or leader.
Negative campaigning can only work if it has something to work with. It can’t make many people believe that the Pope doesn’t believe in God. Tory campaigning against Blair in 1997 – remember the demon eyes and crying lion? – didn’t work because (1) people then had a reasonably positive view of the Labour leader and (2) it was focused on him personally rather than his agenda. Mr Blair was then more Bambi than Stalin. The negativity of the Tory campaign said more about us than it did about them.
I will be led by the research but Ed Miliband does not have the appeal that Tony Blair enjoyed in the 1990s. I think he’s a big weakness for Labour and we should do everything to ensure that the nagging doubts that voters have about him are maximised.
The gap between metropolitan and heartland Labour voters is a strategic problem for the Left all over the world. ‘The Dukakis strategy’ – of painting Ed Miliband as remote from Labour voters on issues like immigration, welfare and crime – seems intuitively right to me. Friday’s immigration speech by the Labour leader suggests he understands his weakness. We must understand and exploit it.
> Last week US NPR hosted an eleven minute discussion of negative campaigning: Putting A Positive Spin On Negative Campaigning.