11 April 2023

The big problem with Labour’s ad? It treats voters like morons


How do you solve a problem like the Red Wall?

It’s a question that preoccupies both major political parties in equal measure. The Tories wonder how to keep it and Labour how to get it back. To us humble northern voters, the Westminster discourse has a curiously anthropological sound to it, as if pundits are talking about a previously uncontacted Amazon tribe. Political strategists on all sides huff and puff, asking focus group after focus group: “What. Do. You. Want?”

After some head-scratching, both parties seem to have now decided the answer is law and order. Perhaps ‘Levelling Up’ is too nebulous, or too ambitious, whereas tackling litter, louts and loitering are things everyone can get on board with. And, with the local elections as a mini dress rehearsal, we’ve seen a rather desperate series of Labour ‘attack ads’, including one that effectively accuses Rishi Sunak of siding with paedophiles.

Never mind that the stats in question pre-date not just Sunak’s time as Prime Minister, but his election to Parliament in 2015, this is pretty grim stuff. It’s the kind of image you might expect to see shared on Facebook by a politically radicalised ex-school friend courtesy of Britain First.

That didn’t stop Deborah Mattinson – Labour’s Director of Strategy and author of Beyond The Red Wall – from sharing the image, and Starmer himself says he makes ‘zero apologies’ for this plainly misleading ad.

Apparently the campaign was dreamt up after Sunak and Suella Braverman launched their own package of measures to take on grooming gangs. A Labour source told The Times that Braverman’s attacks on Labour councils for failing to stand up to abusers was ‘the final straw’ that prompted the Opposition to go for the jugular.

The thing is, many voters may think Braverman had a point, and remember that it was Labour councils in places like Rotherham who let appalling abuse go unchecked – something Ed Miliband expressed regret for when he was party leader back in 2015.

But there’s a broader problem with Labour’s ad, it treats voters, including those of us in the hallowed Red Wall, as if we’re morons. Do they really think we are going to see this and think ‘ah, Rishi Sunak is a big fan of paedos?’. Even the most apathetic voter knows Prime Ministers are not involved in sentencing criminals, and nor should they be. This kind of attack also invites criticism of Starmer himself, who actually was involved in sentencing guidelines when he was Director of Public Prosecutions.

To return to the Red Wall itself, we really need to get away from the kind of casual myth-making that abounds in political commentary. The most casual myth of all is that these seats that historically voted Labour are all overwhelmingly working class. That entirely misses the point of the ‘Red Wall’ strategy the Tories launched in 2019: that these were actually seats whose demographics favoured the Conservatives but voted Labour for historical and cultural reasons. The idea that Red Wall = working class is an error so basic I can hardly believe it still needs explaining.

Of course, we have deprived communities – as does virtually everywhere in the country – but areas like mine also have a large, flourishing middle class and an increasing number of graduates. They are not hotbeds of reactionary, ferret-walking ex-miners grumbling about foreigners every five minutes.

That’s another pervasive myth, that the Red Wall is uniformly socially conservative. Yes, some of us do make the point that housing asylum seekers in areas ravaged by deindustrialisation might not be a great idea. We would like to see new arrivals spread more evenly around the country, but that is a question of resources and fairness, not xenophobia or intolerance. Of course there are people who cleave to traditional values (again, like most parts of the country), but areas like mine have embraced modern, multi-ethnic Britain, and our marriages, friendship groups and families reflect that. The same goes for LGBT rights, where people may be sceptical about the more extreme activism, but are generally of a ‘live and let live’ disposition.

Some, such as the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, suggest that what Labour is really doing with its ad is trying to ‘appeal to racists in the Red Wall’. Personally I think that says more about her own skew-eyed view of British society than anything. Still, if Labour really is trying to appeal to an imaginary group of rabid racists sporting flat caps, it’s a very strange ploy: one that risks alienating Red Wall voters who dislike being patronised, and the party’s metropolitan activists who find such politics repellent.

Odder still is that Starmer seems to have abruptly jettisoned his carefully crafted Mr Sensible persona, in order to defend the kind of lurid political stunt he would normally run a mile from. Given that his party are well ahead in most of their target seats anyway, it feels like Labour are taking a thoroughly unnecessary risk – and one that is already backfiring.

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Jordan Tyldesley is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.