Why Labour and Keir Starmer are willing to play dirty with political attack adverts targeting Rishi Sunak

The release of a provocative and factually dubious Labour advert on Twitter attacking Rishi Sunak caused shockwaves - but it’s just a sign of things to come

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The gloves are officially off. We may still have around 18 months until the next general election, but the Labour Party has come out swinging over the Easter parliamentary recess, launching a series of attack ads against Rishi Sunak that has caused a briefing war inside the shadow cabinet, provoked widespread condemnation across the political divide - and, no matter what you think about them, cut through to the public at large.

The first advert posted by Labour’s Twitter account on 6 April featured a smiling Sunak with the caption: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t”. It was met with much handwringing: this wasn’t what we had come to expect from sensible, boring Sir Keir Starmer. For others it made perfect sense that an increasingly bullish Starmer would be taking a leaf out of the Dominic Cummings Brexit playbook, where the power of the message trumps any considerations of honesty or integrity.

After all, the tweet in question has been viewed over 22 million times, and led to wall-to-wall media coverage during a lull in the news cycle. That’s cut-through, by anyone’s definition. Far from pull it down, Starmer’s team is doubling down. They’ve released three more ads attacking the prime minister, and have more planned. Writing in the Daily Mail of all places, the Labour leader stressed: “I stand by every word Labour has said on the subject, no matter how squeamish it might make some feel.”

It quickly became clear that some of his closest allies shared this “squeamishness”, and notably refused to share the adverts. Despite the subject of the ads falling under her remit, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper was reportedly “not informed or consulted” about their release, and her colleagues Angela Rayner, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves and Ed Miliband have also yet to retweet any of them. Others, like shadow justice secretary Steve Reed, have shared them repeatedly. The controversy has clearly split Starmer’s shadow cabinet down the middle, with defenders of the strategy accusing others of not understanding how elections are won.

What’s behind Labour’s new strategy?

So what’s prompted this seemingly new direction in Labour strategy? In short, the party seems to have gone from quiet confidence over their election prospects at the end of last year, to major jitters. They may remain the odds-on favourites to deny the Tories an unprecedented fifth term in government, but a recent poll from Ipsos showed that Sunak’s personal rating had increased by four points, while Starmer’s rating went down by three - leaving him one percentage point behind. The overall voting intention still had Labour on 49% compared to 26% for the Conservatives, but the gap is starting to narrow. After tangible policy announcements on Northern Ireland and small boats, there’s a perception that Sunak is now managing to distance himself from his hapless predecessors in Downing Street, to make the government seem slightly more competent again.

“It's interesting that this appears now,” Dr Nick Turnbull, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester who specialises in political rhetoric, tells me. “Either Labour sees an opportunity according to its own research or it is worried about Sunak's credibility in the eyes of the public. Because he is new, he is not as vulnerable to loss of public approval about the government's financial management under [Boris] Johnson and [Liz] Truss. Labour has to find a way to undermine his leadership.”

Professor Steven Fielding, who has written extensively about Labour, also understands why the party has gone for a punchier approach. He says it makes sense that they’re trying to implicate Sunak in “all the bad things” the Tories have done since 2010. He explains: “Labour wants to neutralise one of the few assets that the Conservative Party appears to have, which is Rishi Sunak, the new kid on the block, and to say, ‘he's not, he's just the same old Tories’.”

No more Mr Nice Guy?

Starmer’s message following the debacle of Truss last year, when Labour shot to a huge lead in the polls, was one of caution mixed with confidence. He announced a shake-up of the party hierarchy and said that Labour was now on an “election footing”. He also axed his chief of staff Sam White, who had been criticised for being overly cautious, with Labour HQ taking a lead on strategy. Having recently blocked his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn from representing Labour at the next election, Starmer appears keen to inject a new steel into his leadership, and the attack adverts could be the first sign of how his team is seeking to take inspiration from the more aggressive style of their New Labour forebears some 25 years ago. Get the message out, win at all costs, take no prisoners.

However, we shouldn't read too much into what the ads say about the Labour leader himself, according to Prof Fielding. “I don't think it's specifically a Starmer way of going about things. He’s gone along with it, he’s clearly signed off on it, but I wouldn't say it says anything more about him.”

In fact, Prof Fielding believes it’s in keeping with Starmer's “clunkingly effective” leadership style: “When he needs to do X to get his objective, he does it, and he does it totally. So when he needed to get the votes of Labour members who thought well of Jeremy Corbyn, but just had some questions about his own effectiveness, Starmer did his 10 pledges, for which he's got a lot of subsequent criticism because people say he’s moved away from a lot of those. But these 10 pledges were designed to get Corbyn-liking members to vote for him, and to shut out any possibility that Rebecca Long-Bailey or anybody else would be able to be a reasonable, viable alternative to him. So he does those things and then he does a handbrake turn and does other things, like immediately then embraces the flag and talks about patriotism. It’s not subtle. He's not crafty in that regard. He does it and then he moves on and does maybe something different to get a different objective.”

Are political attack ads a risk worth taking?

Putting aside any questions over taste or decency, is this openly aggressive strategy effective? “Yes, it can be effective,” says Dr Turnbull. “This is especially the case for opposition parties, which must always battle against the legitimating glow provided to government simply from being in a position of authority. Attack ads aim to undermine that credibility, in this case going to the leader's own record, the key aspect of the ad. On sensitive issues such as this, also a strong policy area for the Conservatives, the gains for Labour are potentially significant.”

While Dr Turnbull notes that there “hasn't been anything in the UK like the abusive, slanderous ads long used in the US”, he believes that Starmer’s team will have understood that the potential benefits outweigh the risks of a backlash: “Most people won't care about or notice elite discussions of what's proper and what's not in political advertising. But they will care about criminal penalties for child abusers. I suppose you could say it risks a tit-for-tat response from the Conservatives, but they were already going to go after Starmer in any way they can.”

Electorally, Prof Fielding believes that the adverts are designed to appeal to voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies which Labour lost to Boris Johnson in 2019, given the focus on crime, but he doesn’t share the view that there’s a risk of alienating Labour’s more liberal supporters in affluent or metropolitan areas: “I don't think it's going to put them off voting for Labour, because the whole context of this is that so many people want to get rid of the Conservatives now.”

He adds: “I would think that they thought there was a risk in this, but it was a risk worth taking.”

Does it matter if the ads are untrue?

In the run-up to the Brexit poll in 2016, the Vote Leave campaign led by Dominic Cummings infamously made the claim that the UK sent the EU £350 million per week, and that Turkey was set to join the bloc. Both claims were patently untrue and wilful distortions of the facts. Asked in 2017 on their effectiveness, Cummings said: “Would we have won without immigration? No. Would we have won without £350 million / NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests No. Would we have won by spending our time talking about trade and the Single Market? No way.”

NationalWorld’s data and investigations editor Harriet Clugston recently fact checked claims made by Starmer and later repeated by his deputy Angela Rayner in Parliament that only 1.6% of reported rapes end up with a suspect being charged by police. This bending of the facts reveals that the opposition is just as ready to present distorted versions of reality in the pursuit of political point-scoring.

But despite the apparent ‘success’ of Vote Leave’s tactics in 2016, Dr Turnbull thinks that Labour should be careful when it comes to accuracy. “Yes, landing the message is most important,” he says. “But accuracy is, too, I think, in the UK.”

He adds: “Obvious exaggerations can be rebutted to an extent. But they have to be clear violations to be really challenged. I assume Labour isn't just trying this out but has strategically targeted government policy in this area for the coming election. I wouldn't expect this line of argument to disappear if Labour sees a response to the ads in its own research.”

On the question of playing dirty, again, Prof Fielding can see the logic of indulging in the more brutal campaigning we perhaps associate more closely with the Tories: “There's a sort of line of thinking that the Conservatives get elected often by people who think ‘well, they’re a nasty bunch of bastards, but at least they're effective.’ Right? And Labour? ‘Well, they're the nice guys but they couldn't run a piss-up in a brewery.’

"So you might think coming across as a little bit clever, a bit nasty like this, won't do Keir Starmer any harm whatsoever, given he's a kind of a vacuum so far as many people are concerned, and boring. I’m pushing it a bit, but this might make him a bit more interesting as far as some people are concerned. So I don't think there was any danger. I don't think it will change how most people think about Starmer, but it might start making people think about Rishi Sunak.”

So, are the gloves now off? “They’ve never been on,” laughs Prof Fielding. “I don’t know when the gloves were first taken off, but we’re a long way away from that.”