Nice versus nasty is a caricature of the battle for the Tory soul. The sketch has all the wildly exaggerated features you would expect: one side of Torydom just wants to be unpleasant and aggressive, be it in the policies they implement or their treatment of their opponents, while the other is all heart and positivity.
It should be a sign that this is a misrepresentation that Theresa May is cast as part of both tendencies – simultaneously the harsh Home Secretary and the utterer of the now-famous warning about “the Nasty Party”. The same goes for Iain Duncan Smith – the architect of welfare reform, demonised by the left, but also the most successful modern proponent of compassionate Conservatism, both in office and through his Centre for Social Justice.
Like any caricature, it isn’t true to the facts. But also like any caricature, it plays on a kernel of reality. There isn’t a vast fissure in our party about whether to be nice or nasty – but there is a difference over tactics when it comes to the election campaign.
The most recent example of this can be seen in the (also overhyped) news reports about Conservative YouTube adverts.
Leave aside the put-on frothing about them not being regulated like TV adverts – there’s a good reason for that, they aren’t on TV. Rather, when Esther McVey was challenged about the ads on ITV’s Loose Women, she said:
“I don’t do that [negative campaigning], and I don’t agree with that. I’ve never personalised anything, you stand by your policies. We have got a lot of credibility from what we have achieved.
“Where I come from it’s a Labour heartland, a trade union heartland, and I’ll have a very personal campaign against me there.”
We shouldn’t ignore the final point – for the left, who routinely accuse the Government of “slavery” (expecting people on unemployment benefits to gain work experience), “ethnic cleansing” (reforming housing benefit) and worse, to complain about negative politics is the height of hypocrisy.
But it’s also interesting that McVey has chosen to distance herself from the adverts at the same as promoting her unremittingly positive #notjustforboys campaign on women’s jobs. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Theresa May also urged her colleagues to be positive this week. And, though she hasn’t taken part in this week’s debate, don’t forget that Nicky Morgan also deployed a similar argument last year when she deplored the language of “hate”. There’s an echo chamber for the argument outside Parliament, too – Rachel Sylvester wrote in The Times on Tuesday that negative campaigning could cost Cameron the election.
Tory sources reply to the criticism by arguing it is inaccurate – for a start, I’m told that only six of the 26 YouTube adverts deployed by CCHQ have been negative, the rest being positive ads like this one. They also point to the Prime Minister’s tour of the nation at which he has been promoting a positive economic plan for each region, and to the poster that kicked the campaign off, with it’s sunlit urge to stick to the straight and narrow. It’s also true that we all hear a lot of Our Long Term Economic Plan – it would be inconsistent to complain of OLTEP’s ubiquity and to simultaneously suggest the Tory pitch is entirely or even mostly negative.
The bald fact of the matter is that an effective campaign has both positive and negative aspects – the most compelling decision will be driven by a feeling that this option is better and that the other is worse. Anyone who thinks Blair in 1997, for example, ran a purely positive campaign has airbrushed their memory. The Tories aren’t running attack adverts for no reason; they’re part of the mix because they believe they will work. Even the first-time voter cited in Sylvester piece about YouTube told her, “It was effective in a way but so nasty.” Effective isn’t a bad thing in a campaign.
Labour are only trying to make an issue of it because they know the weakness of their pitch – their promise not to feature David Cameron on promotional material (a promise they swiftly broke, by the way) isn’t a noble self-sacrifice, it’s a calculated effort to a) pose as more sinned against than sinning and b) avoid drawing comparisons between the two potential Prime Ministers, because it’s a comparison the polls suggest Miliband will lose.
And yet, there’s an undeniable characteristic shared by those who have expressed concern about negativity – they’re all female. It seems too great a coincidence that several pushes on the matter have been made in the space of 48 hours.
What’s going on? It isn’t an outright gender war over political tactics, with McVey, May and Morgan wanting more all positivity and no attack ads, while Osborne and Crosby delight solely in launching mortar round after mortar round – May, for example, also said it was right to hold Labour to account. Nor is it likely to be an overly cunning plan to deliver positive messages from the women Tory ministers while the men crack together Labour heads.
But it does appear to be the case that there are some differences of opinion on the question – or at least a difference in willingness to voice them – and thus far it’s broken along gender lines. Could it be a manifestation of natural differences in the ways that men and women communicate, or a better understanding on the part of female Ministers how female voters are likely to receive messages?
The tricky task in a campaign is not picking between being positive or negative, it’s in making the two sit comfortably and plausibly alongside each other. Switching from the promise of sunlit uplands in one breath to predictions of doom and disaster in the next makes you look mad, not persuasive. If there’s some divide among Tory figures about which they prefer to do more of, that won’t necessarily do the campaign any harm.