As the major political parties are rallying up ahead of the upcoming local elections in May, and beyond this to the much-anticipated next general election, narrative shaping political ads have begun to take centre stage. Where Labour has often been criticised for failing to take a hard stance on major policy issues, they appear to have taken a new approach in the flurry of attack ads that have been released over the past week.
The first of a series of controversial and hard-hitting attack ads contended that Rishi Sunak “doesn’t believe” adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison. This allegation is linked to Labour research suggesting that 4,500 individuals with convictions such as this have failed to serve prison time under the Conservatives since 2010. A further set of attack ads have since been released drawing on the topics of punishing thieves and jailing criminals linked to gun crime.
These attack ads have made headlines for Labour, with the initial advert on sexual assault on children having more than 21 million views on Twitter by Sunday mid-afternoon. With this has come a host of furious criticism across the political spectrum, including from Labour backbenchers and Shadow Ministers themselves. Despite this, Labour is doubling down and are set to release a further attack ad on the Conservatives’ record on rape shortly.
Such attack ads and toying’s with the concept of ‘fake news’ are not a new phenomenon in the political arena and are certainly not novel to the Conservatives themselves. In Margaret Thatcher’s winning 1979 campaign, Saatchi & Saatchi released the “Labour isn’t working” poster, which has since been coined as one of the most influential attack ads, whilst in the run up to both the 2017 and 2019 general elections, Jeremy Corbyn was the target for an ambush of digital attacks by the Conservatives on national security. Certainly, the infamous Vote Leave campaign harnessed the power of the media for shock effect and to stir up sentiment.
The extent to which such attack ads can influence political elections is unpredictable. In this case, with the extent of criticism received, if they do have the power to shape voting intention, it is unclear which way the pendulum will swing for Labour.
Although Labour currently sits comfortably in the polls, given the historic hesitancy of the British public to vote left, the risk for Labour here is alienating the centrist commentators who in the current political climate are flirting with the idea of a Labour government. Given that public dissatisfaction with politicians is at an all-time high, Labour taking a page out of the Tory playbook might undermine attempts to differentiate themselves as the party of ‘change.’ For example, parallels can be drawn here with Boris Johnson’s slurs against Keir Starmer on Jimmy Savile last year. Many are questioning why Labour chose not to employ the weapon of truth here instead, given the string of Conservative controversies over the past few years.
Labour was certainly victorious in its goal to get people talking but whether it will shift the narrative away from Starmer as ‘lacklustre’ or condemn him as another politician with dirty tricks, it begs the question – is all publicity for Labour good publicity?