Why Sadiq Khan is right to go negative

Election campaigns are a means to an end, and a pretty clear end at that: winning political office. Yes, while it is true that some can flower into “movements” or “causes”, and become greater than the party or individual they are built to promote, when the dust settles on election day this is the only true measure of a campaign’s success.

A campaign that wants to win cannot afford to leave a single weapon in its arsenal untouched. The electorate needs to be carpet-bombed by a candidate’s core message, and the opposition attacked at every opportunity. Sometimes stealthily, sometimes in the clear light of day, but effectively and unremittingly attacked.

Which is why it is mind-boggling to read the New Statesman’s Anoosh Chakelian lay into Sadiq Khan for his recent attack ad on Zac Goldsmith, his Conservative rival for London mayor. 

Has Labour learned nothing from May 2015? The party was sunk by a series of forensic attacks directed by the Tory high command, which undermined Labour’s economic credibility and the character of Ed Miliband. English swing voters abandoned Labour out of fear they would become puppets of the SNP, a fear lustily stoked by Conservative spinners. On the other side of the border, Scottish swing voters flocked to the SNP based on smears that Labour had acted as Tory stooges during the independence referendum. Labour was attacked mercilessly on all sides – and paid the price.

Yet Labour continues to dither over negative campaigning. Indeed the tendency has worsened since the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Because of the leader’s desire to be seen to rise above the fray and – consciously or not – to position himself, and by extension the party, as morally superior to its opponents, negative campaigning is now somehow beneath us. Oh yes, certainly Labour will point out how cruel and ghastly Tory policies are – but attacks on character? Attacks on our opponents’ privilege? No thanks.

This is a problem when it comes to the Mayoral race. If Khan fails to nail down Goldsmith’s character it frees him to transform, chameleon-like, into whatever he needs to be to win.

At London Young Labour’s annual general meeting in early January, which Khan attended, a member spoke out in alarm at how the voters he’d spoken to seemed to believe Goldsmith was more Green than Tory, a cuddly conservative as different from David Cameron as chalk from cheese.

Khan’s attack ad is designed to puncture this illusion. It puts Goldsmith’s voting record front and centre, clearly marking him out as a Tory loyalist, rather than the maverick MP he purports to be. The ad also highlights his privileged background. Holier-than-thou Labourites may baulk at such ad hominem snipes, but they play to the Khan campaign’s strengths. After all, it is Khan who has chosen to make the background of the candidates a touchstone issue in this mayoral race. Not a speech goes by where he doesn’t mention his son-of-a-bus-driver biography, or fails to use the memorable line: “My story is London’s story.”

At the recent Fabian New Year Conference, James Morris, pollster and communications strategist at GQR Research, said: “People don’t like negative campaigning, but it does work – you’ve got to do it, and do it coherently. In opposition, you can choose which rows there are by choosing where to attack. [For example] if Labour spends all week attacking the Tories on the rise of homelessness, that’s going to put the issue in the news. If you spend the time putting together a detailed document on how they’ve missed their fiscal targets – that will be in the news.”

By attacking Goldsmith’s background, Khan will make this a newsworthy issue, and encourage voters to compare the candidates’ respective life stories – a comparison that will be flattering to Khan.

Certainly, he must do more than just ram home the message that Goldsmith is privileged beyond the wildest dreams of most Londoners. Yet the attack ad that Chakelian derides will do far more to help than hinder Labour’s candidate come May 5th

Louie Woodall is a Young Fabians member


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