Petty squabbling won’t win an election

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The fact that a party’s election campaign is dependent on the amount of money its donors are willing to fork out is by all means concerning. Yet in the run up to this year’s general election, Labour’s relative lack of funds could be the party’s saving grace. With predictions that the Conservatives will outspend Labour three to one, Miliband’s team has been forced to change tactics – for the better.

The party recently announced that it will be rising above Cameron’s tactics of ‘falsehood and smear’ and rejecting any form of negative campaigning. No Labour election poster will feature the face of the prime minister. Whether motivated by the sheer cost of creating and placing billboards or by the fear that pitting Miliband against Cameron will do Labour no favours, the party’s decision certainly comes off as an attempt to raise the tone of the debate.

The Conservatives have asked donors to dig deep in their pockets in order to pay for hundreds of poster sites in high streets across the country. Billboards, some featuring the Labour leadership, will soon be a familiar sight. Meanwhile, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s campaign chief, has announced “we’ll focus our campaign on issues, not personalities”. Miliband and his team are ahead of schedule in their attempt to talk face-to-face with 4 million voters before Election Day. Their doorstop campaigning scheme is being organised via social media – part of their ”go online to get offline” strategy. Douglas, who claimed “the worst thing a politician can hear on the doorstep…is that all politicians are the same” has launched a hands-on campaign intended to show the public exactly what Labour stands for.

The result is that Labour seems ready to talk serious politics, while the Conservatives just look desperate. Even the party’s own members have branded recent billboards tasteless and unnecessarily personal. Cameron’s unwillingness to take part in the TV debate has not done him any favours – and this focus on negative campaigning makes the Prime Minister look even more intent on avoiding the spotlight. Everyone knows that the opinion polls are on his side – but this will be in his favour anyway. By abusing Miliband’s unpopularity, he comes off as a bully that won’t back down.

Even more importantly, Cameron’s campaign misjudges the public. The British people don’t want an American-style election. Choosing a leader to represent Britain is not the only issue at stake. People want to feel personally connected to politics; to understand what it can do for them; to vote not only for a prime minister but also for an MP who will affect change in their local area. Smear campaigns just alienate people, undoing the work of local councils and MPs who are fighting to make politics more accessible to a greater proportion of the general public. They reinforce the view that politics is a dirty business and propagate the stereotype of politicians as corrupt, untrustworthy figures who are more interested in their own public-schoolboy squabbles than in engaging the public.

The use of negative campaigning shows a lack of interest in the needs and interests of the voters; it underestimates them. While it might be amusing to look at a picture of Miliband in an unfortunate pose, most people want to know what each party is actually doing. Splashing out on billboards featuring photos of the opposition shows an unwillingness to deal with the real issues at hand and doesn’t bring the public any closer to rooting for you. Of course, all politics is about the opposition to some extent. Miliband wouldn’t have a leg to stand on regarding the NHS if no one had revealed the mess the Conservatives were making of it. But most of the people who are going to go out and vote want to know who they’re voting for, not against.

Whatever we think of Miliband’s policies, at least he intends to tell us them. Ditching the expensive billboards and speaking to the people will make Labour look like a party of real politicians, rather than petty schoolboys intent only on one-upmanship. Labour is prepared for a serious debate about what is best for the country; the Conservatives just want to call names.