Labour’s Sunak attack ads: fighting fire with fire or race to the bottom?

Controversial campaign poster accuses prime minister of not supporting imprisonment of child sex abusers

keir starmer shielding eyes
Keir Starmer said he made ‘absolutely zero apologies’ for the ads
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty)

Labour campaign adverts that suggest Rishi Sunak does not support jailing child abusers have triggered fresh debate about political mud-slinging.

The attack ads, released on Twitter last week, are part of a push on law and order campaigning by Keir Starmer’s party ahead of the local elections on 4 May. But both Conservative and Labour supporters have criticised a poster featuring an image of the prime minister alongside the message: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

‘Zero apologies’

The claim is “rather obviously, untrue”, wrote Mark Wallace for the i news site, and has attracted “a storm of criticism” and accusations of gutter politics and dirty tricks. But the attack ads are “meant to sting” and the resulting controversy is “exactly the desired reaction”, according to Wallace, chief executive of the ConservativeHome blog. Such tactics were used to “great effect” by the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum.

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The Financial Times’s Stephen Bush agreed that an “increasingly important component of a successful campaign is generating something that both your internal critics and political opponents won’t stop talking about”. During “my time covering elections”, Bush continued, “a pattern has emerged” – a political party or campaign “reveals a new line of attack”, Westminster “goes on and on about how excessive it is” but “then the party in question wins”.

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The Times’s home affairs editor Matt Dathan reported that allies of Starmer had “hailed the success” of the attack ads. A Labour insider “involved in creating them” reportedly said there was “a deliberate plan to be provocative and disruptive”, adding: “This is how, in a digital age, you cut across the channels and talk to people directly.”

According to The Guardian’s political correspondent Aletha Adu and reporter Ben Quinn, a party source “insisted people simply weren’t used to Labour campaigning on law and order, which is central to who Starmer is”.

The Labour leader has also publicly defended the attack ads. In an article published in the Daily Mail on Monday, Starmer wrote he made “zero apologies for being blunt” about the government’s “failures to tackle crime”.

‘Grubby smear campaign’

Labour have made clear they have “no intention of leaving the gutter”, said a Daily Mail editorial.

But if Starmer’s spin doctors try to blame Sunak for the economic downturn and high crime rates, the “grubby smear campaign” may backfire, the paper predicted. Mud-slinging is “a dangerous business” and “the clods can often stick to the thrower, rather than the intended target”. Labour mayors are in charge of “two of the very worst performing” police forces on violent crime, the Metropolitan and Greater Manchester Police.

And the UK “saw borrowing double and six consecutive quarters of negative growth” under Gordon Brown’s leadership in 2008-09 – although Starmer would “no doubt argue that this was because of the global financial crash” .

Former Labour MP Tom Harris also warned of the potential dangers of making personal attacks on rival politicians. The attack ad on Sunak not only leaves Starmer open to accusations of hypocrisy, Harris wrote for The Telegraph, but also sounds like “the sort of accusation a losing party might make in the closing period of a disastrous general election campaign”.

Yet Labour are well ahead in the polls, which makes the “implausible, hysterical language” unnecessary, he argued. These type of accusations,“however lurid and headline-grabbing, don’t play well with voters”, who are “more informed and sensible than they are given credit for”.

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