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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Accentuating the positive

Andrew Rawnsley has an excellent column in today's Observer in which he excoriates the puerile and unoriginal quality of the propaganda emanating from the two bigger political parties. He argues that the negative and predictable attacks on personalities, on each other's record and even on each other's policies will turn off voters and undermine further the status of politicians in the minds of the public.

He also comments on the incredible sight of a Labour Government, six points ahead in the polls, adopting defensive tactics and negative attacks to deflect attention from its own vulnerabilities:

The Labour campaign has so far been characterised by negative attacks on Michael Howard and 'Tory cuts' and defensive tactics designed to blunt the saliency of issues where the government feels vulnerable. The Conservatives promote a change in the law on the degree of violence a householder can mete out to intruders, so the government produces a new good-housekeeping guide about how to bash a burglar.

The Tories go large on immigration; this week, Labour will make its own noise on the subject. The Conservatives make an issue of school discipline; so does Labour. The Prime Minister's allies are quite frank about it: 'The strategy is to try to close down weak areas before moving on to the more positive areas.'

Although I dislike negative, personality-based campaigning, like Andrew Rawnsley I recognise that it is a fact of life, simply because it is effective:

The character of the opposing leader is fair game. I will be amazed if the Tories do not unleash a sustained assault on Tony Blair as a man who cannot be trusted. It is equally legitimate for Labour to attack the record of the Tory government of which Michael Howard was a prominent member. For many years after the winter of discontent, the Tories went on using it to bash Labour. I am neither surprised nor shocked that both parties are seeking to exploit the freedom of information legislation to dig up stuff to hurl at each other. Politics, especially at election times, is not for wusses.

His most telling point however is on the state of the Conservatives:

Both parties originally planned to fight this election in new ways. Both are already falling back into old habits. The Tories were supposed to have learnt the errors of William Hague's catastrophic 2001 campaign. The consensus among Conservatives after that landslide defeat was that they were massacred because they had failed to understand and engage with the voters' concerns about public services.

They would not make the same mistake again, so the Tories told themselves. It is true they have moved on in some respects. They go into this election saying that they can match Labour spending on hospitals and schools. But it is not health and education that the Tories have chosen to big up. They have returned to those favourites of Mr Hague last time around: to crime, to immigration and, more modestly, to tax cuts. It is to those subjects that the Tories have devoted most energy and attention since the new year.

It is difficult to argue with Andrew Rawnsley's conclusion. The use of negative and personality based campaigning techniques is wearing out voters and in turn the methods themselves become less effective. We need some originality and zest in our slogans and messages, not tired predictability. When, as Guy Fawkes and Honourable Fiend point out, Labour's main campaign slogan is not even grammatically correct, you must wonder what politics is coming to.

I know that it is unfashionable and that it does not fit well with the focus groups and marketing methods that ensure that the message is delivered to the maximum number of people as often as possible, but it would be nice to return to the days when politicians argued their case and treated the voters as adults.

How on earth can you sit there and criticise Labour and the Tories of negative campaigning?
If the cap fits....
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