The rallying cry of the French decadent poets was Épater la bourgeoisie. Its equivalent for the circle who now run Labour is Épater la gauche. For Team Starmer is focused on winning power and power alone, and to that end voters must be persuaded that Sir Keir himself has nothing to do with that lefty old beardy from Islington, Jeremy Corbyn.
Like Rishi Sunak, the Labour leader is focused on older, provincial, town-dwelling English voters – the kind that are usuallly conflated with people in the Red Wall (the former include the latter but make up a bigger slice of the electorate). What might their ralllying-cry be? Political legend has the following: “hang the paedos, fund the NHS”.
There in a nutshell are the two of the main reasons for the notorious Labour attack ad holding Rishi Sunak personally responsible for 4500 convicted child abusers avoiding prison – most of whom committed their offences before he entered Parliament, let alone became Prime Minister.
For it was a Twitter ad, don’t forget, so not projected more widely by Labour, and so, in the view of one expert, not aimed at the mass of voters. “It aimed to provoke a reaction from Diane Abbott and her like, and succeeded,” I was told. Nonetheless, Twitter rows can have consequences. They can reverberate more widely. They can spill over elsewhere.
It is hard to believe that the creatives who dreamed up the ad, and are busily working on its stream of successors, didn’t anticipate that possibility. Most voters won’t have heard hide or hair of the ad in question. Insofar as they are following political news at all, it will be that about the strikes.
All the same, the media reaction to the ad will have had some impact, and Labour are clearly getting their revenge in first. The party knows that the Conservatives will go for Keir Starmer personally. They know that his record as Director of Public Prosecutions will be thrust under the magnifying glass. And they know that some of the issues that arise relate to sex and race.
At which point let me once again promote the chapters of Lord Ashcroft’s biography of the Labour leader, Red Knight. Boris Johnson claimed in the Commons that, when Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir had “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.
The former Prime Minister later backtracked, sort of, saying that “I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions” when pressed about his remark. “I was making a point about his responsibility for the organisation as a whole,” he added.
Our proprietor agrees: “While it may be true that [Sir Keir] was not personally responsible for the CPS’s decision in 2009 not to prosecute Savile, there is no doubt that this failure occurred on his watch and was therefore, ultimately, his responsibility,” he writes.
The Crown Prosecution Service’ decided not to prosecute Savile in 2009. Sir Keir became DPP in 2008, leaving in 2015. That’s why he apologised in 2013 for the decision. Team Starmer know well that the Conservatives may be keeping the Savile fire low for the moment, but that they will rake it up again during the run-up to the general election.
They can’t be sure that Johnson’s accusation hasn’t cut through to some voters, who have an ear for that kind of claim (which is precisely why the former Prime Minister made it). So Labour has gone in early with its studs up. In particular, it needs to take the shine off Sunak.
The Conservatives’ poll ratings aren’t competitive with Labour. But Sunak’s are with Sir Keir’s – at least on some measures, at least some of time. So Labour must strive to get Sunak’s ratings down to his party’s level before he has a chance to get its own up to his.
This is where ethnicity may come in. It’s been put to me that a further reason for the attack ads lies in another fact about those provincial voters: they’re white. And like the claims about Starmer and Savile, those about Labour, Rotherham, British Pakistanis and child abuse may have got through.
Andrew Gimson looked at these exhaustively on this site recently, and quoted in doing so Alexis Jay’s report into the incidents in 2014, in which she estimated that between 1997 and 2013 1400 children were sexually exploited. In a later interview in the Guardian, Jay pointed a finger at Rotherham’s Labour Party.
She believes the Labour-dominated council turned a blind eye to the problem, the paper reported, because of “their desire to accommodate a community that would be expected to vote Labour, to not rock the boat, to keep a lid on it, to hope it would go away”.
The suggestion put to me is that the Labour attack was a dog whistle pitched at those white voters. Sunak is Asian. The Rotherham victims were white. That’s why you can’t trust him to put abusers in jail. Such is the surreptitious logic of the ad, or so it was claimed. (That Sunak is of Indian and not Pakistani origin is a fact that some voters don’t pick up or aren’t interested in.)
I’m sceptical. Certainly, Labour is no more unwilling to get into such politics than anyone else. Consider, for example, the Batley by-election, during which the party issued a leaflet, aimed at Pakistani-origin voters, showing Johnson with Narenda Modi and bearing the words “don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side”.
But complicating factor of our multi-cultural settlement is that, if those in a controversy are of one ethnicity and religion or another, people have a way of seeing what they want to see. We also have a itch to trying and make sense of the world by seeing conspiracy in cockups.
Which brings me to the brutal verdict of an old Labour hand when I put this claim of a dog whistle to him: “I’m afraid that would be to accord this a strategic purpose which has been totally absent”, he said. The ad, he says, was “poor in concept and appallingly executed. They want to be more aggressive in attack which is fine”.
“But why choose child abuse when Keir and Labour have questions to answer? And it hasn’t really cut through. It’s been a Twitter storm. The worse thing is that the Leader of the Opposition’s office thinks it was a huge success which means they will make more mistakes.”
The point about a dog whistle is that only dogs can hear it and, since this is so, it follows that those who can’t may imagine one that isn’t there. The most important aspect of the attack ad may turn out simply to be that it shows us where the coming general election campaign may be going – towards a race-to-the-botttom contest between unpopular parties marked by a low turnout.
So on the one hand, there is sense in Labour starting to get its attack in early. Negative campaigning often works, whatever polls may tell you. On the other, as Iain Macleod once put it, one can’t help it if when Labour, when asked to select weapons, opt for boomerangs.
The question most likely to interest voters isn’t how many child abusers either party fails to imprison – since many will be convinced that there will be no difference – but what exactly these 4500 offenders were convicted for and why they weren’t locked up. We’ll be looking at that in detail later this week.