Nick Clegg was at his most priggish this week as he sought desperately to
persuade the public not to back Ukip in the European elections. Indeed, he
laid into not only Nigel Farage, but all those who back him – which, by my
reckoning, could be some five million voters.
“However much Nigel Farage tries to disown the backwards and abhorrent views
repeatedly espoused by the people he leads, his party holds an unmistakably
regressive and ungenerous view of the world,” pronounced our Deputy Prime
Minister. Abhorrent? Ungenerous? I always thought that insulting the voters
was a no-no for political leaders. And judging by the polls less than 48
hours later, some of the voters think so, too. They put Ukip bang on course
to come top, at least five points clear of Labour and nine ahead of the
Mr Clegg is not alone in contemptuously attacking Ukip. David Cameron and Ed
Miliband have been equally disdainful. (Remember the Prime Minister’s famous
comments about “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”?) Yet their efforts
seem to have backfired spectacularly. Is this due to the voters’ intolerance
for such negative campaigning?
Actually, there is plenty of evidence – from both sides of the Atlantic – that
mud-slinging works. So why does it seem to be leaving Ukip unscathed? Well,
for a start, it turns out that the mainstream parties have been throwing the
wrong kind of dirt.
As Peter Kellner, the president of pollsters YouGov, puts it, “a negative
campaign that relates to ordinary people on issues that affect them can be
very successful – the Tory attacks on Labour’s tax bombshell in the 1992
general election campaign, for example, or claims that the NHS is not safe
in Tory hands. But to say that some Ukip councillor said something dubious
five years ago is just irrelevant. Generalised abuse simply doesn’t work.”
Yet that is exactly what we have been hearing from Messrs Clegg, Miliband and
Cameron. Worse, our politicians lose no opportunity, even outside an
election, to rubbish each other. As a result, they are frequently trashing
their own collective brand – something commercial enterprises rarely do,
because they know that it will end up damaging their whole industry.
With politicians constantly accusing each other of bad faith, the public has
come to the conclusion that nearly all of them are shysters. No wonder the
same politicians aren’t trusted when they fulminate against Ukip, whose
entire appeal is based on its boasts of being the anti-politics party.
Some of the best examples of this trashing of politics as a brand have come in
the recent party election broadcasts. In particular, there was one from
Labour depicting the Tories as out-of-touch, upper-class twits and Mr Clegg
as the “un-credible shrinking man”. It’s the kind of thing that seems
unfunny and out of touch, if not an insult to voters’ intelligence.
In the US, negative campaigning goes even further. “Most parties spend 70
cents in every dollar on negative adverts, and in the last election a total
of $7 billion was spent on campaigning,” says Professor Larry Sabato,
director of the centre for politics at the University of Virginia. That’s an
awful lot of slung mud. Some of it is undoubtedly effective, but Prof Sabato
counsels: “It adds to a politician’s credibility if he can find good things
to say about an opponent – that he admires him for his military service, for
example, though he disagrees with him on the economy. And we are finding
that in public debates and focus groups, politicians are being told: ‘OK,
you’ve attacked your opponent – now tell us what is good about him.’ If they
can’t answer, it looks terrible.”
Our politicians should take note. For it is not just the way they trash each
other that is undermining public trust in all of them. One former permanent
secretary tells me it is even more important for them to stop promising
things they can’t achieve – which brings us back to Ukip again. “Nobody in
their right mind would set a target of the low tens of thousands for net
migration as the British Government has done,” says the former mandarin.
“That’s because you simply can’t control the numbers leaving the country,
and at present you have very limited control over those coming in.”
No matter what the result of today’s poll, Ukip seems set to do well, even if
Labour ultimately pip them at the post. Afterwards, the mainstream parties
need to work out how they can rebuild their relationship with the voters. To
do that, they need to lower expectations, and be more honest with the
public. Above all, they must put a cap on insulting each other – and the
An MP dies and is told by St Peter that he must spend one day in hell and one
in heaven before choosing where to spend eternity. St Peter takes him down
to hell in a lift. The doors open on a green golf course, with an elegant
clubhouse and all his friends in evening dress, who rush to welcome him.
They dance and make merry with caviar and champagne.
St Peter then takes the MP up to heaven, where contented souls flit among the
clouds singing and playing harps. So where will he spend eternity? He
chooses hell. The lift descends. The doors open on a barren land where his
friends, dressed in rags, are stuffing bin bags with piles of stinking
rubbish that falls from the sky. “I don’t understand,” stammers the MP.
“Yesterday there was a golf course and champagne… and everyone was happy.”
The Devil appears and smilingly explains: “Yesterday, we were campaigning…
but now, you’ve voted.”
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