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By Frank McKenna

By Frank McKenna

Negative campaigning works

Controversy has followed the Labour Party’s latest series of election campaign posters. However, Frank McKenna tells us why negative campaigning often works.

There are two things that you can say for certain about negative political campaigning. Firstly, nobody likes it. Secondly – it works.

For all the controversy, condemnation, and consternation about the Labour Party’s recent campaign ads targeting prime minister Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives main issue with the images is that they will likely cut through.

Negative campaigning has been around forever, and it has often proved effective. The professionalising of political marketing was taken to another level by Margaret Thatcher when she appointed the media agency Saatchi & Saatchi to run the Tories General Election campaign of 1979.

Its posters that screamed ‘LABOUR ISN’T WORKING’ with a photograph of a lengthy dole queue has gone down in the annals of history as one of the most ground-breaking of political ads – and the messaging has only got more aggressive since.

A poster with a soldier with his hands up in surrender, alongside a slogan ‘Labour’s Policy on Arms’ was another hard-hitting image in the 1987 election, as was the ‘Tax Bombshell’ ad aimed at Labours tax plans for the 1992 election. In 1997, a poster with the word ‘BLIAR’ accompanied by a photograph of Tony Blair was yet another ‘positive’ Conservative campaign ad.

All of these posters were obviously good – because I remember them. They may not fit with my own political view, but nonetheless, they are hard-hitting, and they strike a chord. Did they persuade me to vote Tory? No. But they dictated, to an extent, the debate, discussion, and narrative around the respective election campaigns, and so they can rightly be deemed a success.

Similarly, Labour will hope that through its series of negative posters in the run up to the local elections, the policy focus will be on crime, the economy, and an out-of-touch government.

This does not mean Labour will necessarily win the election – local or national. For a start, the Tories will inevitably bite back with their own round of attacks, and the opposition cannot cry ‘foul’. Equally, as the ‘BLIAR’ poster and the ‘New Labour, New Danger’ ads with an image demonising Tony Blair proved, a negative attack will not always deliver a positive election result.

Nonetheless, negative campaigning has a decent track record – and for as many in the Labour Party membership who feel a little squeamish about their party ‘going low’, there will be just as many thinking ‘Its about bloody time’.

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