Laurie Wilcockson explains why he feels the controversy around Labour's attacks ads is overblown.
On the seventh of April, Chris Philp tweeted out an infographic with a big smiling picture of Keir Starmer, next to text that reads as follows:
“Keir Starmer and Labour have voted against:
- Whole life sentences for child murderers
- Preventing early release of sex offenders
- Tougher sentences for road-blocking protestors
- Keeping rapists in prison for longer
- Doubling sentences for assaulting NHS workers”
Their only reference to the source of this information is that it comes from Hansard; it doesn’t provide any further details. At face value, it’s a political advert accusing Keir Starmer of being in favour of lax sentences for child murderers, sex offenders, rapists, and those who’ve assaulted NHS workers. I won’t even bother addressing the farce that is putting Just Stop Oil protestors in the same category.
Now for starters, I am not going to dissect or disavow their claims: I probably could if I bothered to look into it, but the point of political adverts isn’t for you to go ‘well I’d better logon to Hansard and check this out!’ so much as it is ‘wow Keir Starmer’s clearly one of the baddies’. Irrespective of whether or not I consider these to be justifiable accusations, I have zero qualms with Chris Philp’s right to tweet it out. It’s a political attack ad, after all.
In exactly the same vein, I don’t really have much of a problem with the Labour attack ad that seems to have become the definitive headline of the easter weekend. In the highly unlikely event anyone who reads this has somehow not read that, for the sake of fairness I will repeat it here, just as I did with Philp’s:
“Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.
Under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time. Labour will lock up dangerous child abusers.”
Like the Conservatives, Labour do not provide the best source data, merely citing “Ministry of Justice data”. It’s quite hard to see what the difference between the two is, all told. Is it underhand? Yes, undoubtedly. I don’t doubt for a second that Rishi Sunak believes that adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison. The difference between the two, though, is not only that Philp expanded his accusations to include a number of other grotesque offences, but also that Rishi Sunak, for better or worse, is actually the Prime Minister. The Labour advert, furthermore, contains statistics that I’ve yet to see any Conservative politicians reject. At least that has actual quantitative evidence behind it; Philp’s advert doesn’t.
Some people have raised the qualm that Sunak has only been Prime Minister for about half a second, and has only been an MP since 2015. But firstly: if Labour are only allowed to campaign based on the direct actions of the current Prime Minister, they’ll have to completely renew their complaints every year or so, based on the past five years of Tory civil war. Secondly, the second paragraph of the Labour advert diverts from using Rishi as the subject, and starts talking about “the Tories” (a minute detail, I’ll admit, but relevant nonetheless). Thirdly, and I cannot overstate this enough. Rishi Sunak is still the Prime Minister. Who else are we to level our complaints at? Ash Sarkar pointed out on Twitter that if the Tories had mocked up this ad with the photo of an Asian Labour MP, they’d be decried as racist. I don’t disagree, because so far as I’m aware there aren’t any Asian Labour MPs currently in government, let alone in Number 10. To point the blame at them would be remarkably unfair, and almost certainly racist.
Ian Dale wins the award for the most ludicrous pearl-clutching of all. On his LBC show, he called former Miliband advisor Tom Hamilton “naïve” for thinking that the advert was obviously a Labour attack ad, and in fact it is entirely disingenuous on account of the fact that people will think it’s from the Conservative Party, because after all, “it’s got Rishi Sunak’s signature on for goodness sake”. I’ve never met Ian Dale so I don’t mean to hate on him, but if every time he’s seen a tweet with Rishi’s signature, he’s personally thought that it was him who had posted it, his critical analysis skills may be somewhat below those expected of a political journalist. One hopes for his sake he was being deliberately cynical.
Overall, I can’t say I especially care that much about the advert. One might, quite rightly, then point out that if I don’t care, why am I writing about it? And it’s a valid point. Maybe deep down even though I don’t care about the advert itself, I do quite strongly care about the wider point, which is that Conservatives do this on the daily. I singled out Philp, like a bully picking the weakest former cabinet minister in the schoolyard, because he was easy pickings, but there are a number of other examples. The Conservative Party’s own official twitter, on March 24th, tweeted a photo accusing Keir personally of wanting to “raid your hard earned savings”. My main qualm with that tweet, again ignoring the obvious point that it is disingenuous, is that hard-earned ought to be hyphenated. Only two days earlier it tweeted a photo accusing Starmer of avoiding tax. For those not catching on to the pattern here: he isn’t. A week and a bit before that, they even tweeted that “Labour won’t vote for stronger border laws. In fact, Labour would reverse action to stop the boats”. Such is not a personal attack like the other two, but it is especially disingenuous since it is directly contradictory to Labour Party policy. No, they won’t vote for Conservative plans that historically haven’t worked, currently aren’t working, and likely won’t work in the future. I can’t say I blame the opposition for not stopping the small boats crisis when, and again I can’t stress this enough, the actual government aren’t either.
In short: feel free to criticise the Labour advert if you disagree with it, if you think it’s underhand, or that it’s too personal. I, too, would rather politics wasn’t entirely based on needlessly-derivative and overly-simplified infographics. But everybody’s doing it. So either wage a war on clickbait-politics as a whole or chill out and move on with your day. Once I’ve put this down, that’s what I plan on doing.
Laurie Wilcockson is a History student at the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Cambridge Student, and is an occasional contributor to East Anglia Bylines. He grew up in rural Norfolk, and discovered a passion for political journalism when he found himself at the wrong end of the 2020 A Level Algorithm Fiasco, and had to fight for his place at university. He tweets at @LaurieWilcocks1.