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Party tricks

Michael Crick casts a critical eye over the campaigning tactics of the parties and finds them wanting.

“Vote Labour,” screamed the campaign car touring a middle class ward at three o’clock on the morning of polling day, putting an unusual emphasis on the word “Labour”. It was a by-election in the London suburbs more than thirty years ago. “Don’t forget to vote Labour when the polls open in four hours’ time.” According to a former Conservative agent Peter Golds, it had just the effect he and his colleagues had intended. They’d been worried about Conservative turn-out, but at 7am Tory voters were queuing up to show their anger at the way they’d been woken in the early hours, seemingly by the Labour Party.

In Liberal circles they still speak fondly of the young activist who went along to the Labour offices in Liverpool in the middle of the night and injected laxative into the milk bottles on the doorstep. That story may be apocryphal, but I’ve certainly spoken to the Liberal Party worker who, in another legendary incident, volunteered his services to the Tories in the Northfield by-election. They put him in charge of a committee room and he duly spent the day of the election trying to run the Conservative operation in the most inefficient way he could devise. Party workers were told to knock up supporters in groups of streets grouped in alphabetical order rather than according to geographical proximity. As the Tories lost Northfield by fewer than 300 votes, it could have been crucial.

An even more brazen example of political infiltration occurred on the Isle of Wight in the early 1980s, and again it’s been confirmed by the man involved, who was then employed as the Conservative Party agent on the island. Increasingly disillusioned with the Tories, he approached the local Liberals to tell them he wanted to defect. “Don’t do that,” they advised, “carry on working inside the Conservative Party and cause as much damage as possible.” So for more than a year the Tory agent for the Isle of Wight – a marginal seat – was really a Liberal mole, who did his best to ensure the party chose the weakest candidates. He even conferred with his Liberal counterpart to produce the poorest possible Tory literature, until he announced his defection at the worst moment, on the eve of local elections.

All harmless fun, perhaps, student-style tricks that may have been unfortunate for the parties involved but hardly likely to do any long-term harm to the political process. Nor can one complain much about some of the stunts parties indulge in today, such getting young activists to pursue politicians in various forms of fancy dress. Chickens are a favourite (‘fowl’ play, I suppose). A Tory chicken pursued Tony Blair in 1997, accusing him of being frightened to do a TV debate with John Major, while Labour ‘chickens’ have chased hapless Tory MPs who switched seats on the so-called chicken-run. Then there was the Labour Party official, Adrian McMenamin, who in 2001 was persuaded to dress up as Sherlock Holmes, in a quest to find Oliver Letwin, who had gone to ground after some embarrassing remarks to the Financial Times about Tory spending plans. These are merely modern hecklers in an era when traditional heckling has died out because public meetings are scarce and often limited to party supporters. Such activities certainly enliven political debate, though they don’t perhaps enlighten it.

Equally much of the work of rebuttal and negative research units is simply sensible politics, though reflecting, of course, the increasingly negative nature of modern campaigning. Trawling newspaper cuttings and databases to find what opponents have said in the past, or even, in the case of Howard Flight, attending a public meeting to record what he might be saying now, is surely legitimate, so long as such comments are used fairly and not distorted. But much of today’s dirty campaigning is more insidious, involving dishonest literature, severe distortions of the policy and personal details of opponents, and it does much to discredit the democratic process.

Since the 1980s campaigns have been dirtiest in by-elections, where opposition parties – most notably the Liberal Democrats, but also Labour in the late 1980s and early 1990s persuaded themselves that by-election results were crucial to their long-term survival. One effect was that all three main parties ignored the strict laws on election expenses, though Labour and the Liberal Democrats (and the old SDP) were probably worse offenders than the Conservatives. From conversations with Labour officials, I estimate that the party spent around £400,000 in Monmouth in 1991 and the same in Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995, well over ten times the legal limit. In 1997 I calculated on Newsnight that Labour had spent around £100,000 on the Wirral South campaign – four times the limit - though two senior officials from that by-election have both admitted privately my figure was a gross underestimate.

Littleborough and Saddleworth was one of the nastiest campaigns of modern times. Labour attacked the Lib Dem Chris Davies as being “soft on drugs”, after he’d merely called for a more sensible debate on drugs policy. Worse came in Hartlepool last year where Labour came close to lying in its highly personal and relentless attacks on the Liberal Democrat Jody Dunn. In Cheadle this summer, the Conservatives attacked the Lib Dem Mark Hunter by distributing a leaflet entitled ‘Shocking crime record of Mark Hunter’ over a picture of a local newspaper headline about a rape victim. The more gullible might have assumed Hunter himself was the rapist. The Lib Dems retaliated with a leaflet printed in Tory blue, entitled ‘An Apology from the Conservatives’. Distributing literature in the colours and typefaces of Labour or the Conservatives is a favourite Lib Dem ploy.

If there’s one thing on which Labour and Tory activists agree, it’s that the Liberal Democrats are the dirtiest campaigners, though I suspect they justify it to themselves on the grounds that the first-past-the-post electoral system is stacked against them. A notorious Lib Dem booklet called Effective Opposition advises party activists to be “wicked”, to “act shamelessly”, to “stir endlessly”, and not to be afraid to “exaggerate” or “bluff”. And we’re all familiar with the Lib Dems’ regular use of bar charts showing how they are best placed to win the seat in question, conveniently selecting the electoral data which is most convenient for their case. In Islington South this May, they used figures from the 2004 Greater London Assembly polls – when they did exceptionally well - rather than the previous general election, to suggest they could beat Labour. In Basingstoke, in contrast, they relied on results from the whole of Hampshire to make out they were the main challengers.

New technology adds a new dimension to the dirty war. Labour registered the internet domain name michaelhowardmp.net while the Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten fell victim to similar skullduggery in cyperspace when the Tories ensured that a site which included his name in the title redirected people to a website belonging to his Conservative challenger in Winchester, George Hollingbery. At least Hollingbery admits this trick was a mistake, and probably backfired on him and his party.

The harder-nosed tactics of modern British politics have two worrying consequences. First, politicians who have lied and misled their voters, and ridden roughshod over election law to get elected in the first place, are unlikely to mend their ways in office. A lie on the campaign trail leads easily to deceptions in Parliament, and to the spin-doctored distortions of a Whitehall press release or Downing Street briefing.

Political dirty tricks in Britain have become much more public than in the days of the injected laxative or the secret Liberal infiltrators of Northfield and the Isle of Wight. Voters are better educated and informed than in the past, and anyone who actually bothers to read party literature won’t fail to spot the ever more dubious claims about opponents, the statistical sleights of hand of the focus leaflet bar charts, and the literature masquerading in opposition colours. No wonder that turnout figures are at record lows (and the 2005 figure of 61 per cent would have been even lower than 2001 had the government not made it much easier to vote by post).

Election strategists always defend negative campaigning on the grounds that it is effective and makes the biggest impact. The trouble is that one impact is to turn voters off altogether.

Michael Crick is a journalist and writer. His latest books are The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson (Pocket Books) and In Search of Michael Howard (Simon & Schuster).