Opinion

Shocking political ad shows child as if at gunpoint. This is what it tells us about the Tory campaign

Rishi Sunak posted an image of a child and gunpoint and then a pensioner at gunpoint to slam Labour. Dr Nick Anstead, who specialises in political communication, writes about whether the Conservatives' campaign imagery will sway voters based on the history of similar strategies

'don't surrender your family's future to labour' - rishi sunak post

Rishi Sunak posted this image on X alongside the words: "I will never stop fighting for this country" Image: Conservative Party/ Rishi Sunak/ X

A Tory online ad released in the last week of the election campaign has generated a huge amount of comment as well as significant criticism. The advert shows a man, a woman and a child, all with their hands held above their heads, under the slogan: “Don’t surrender your family’s future to Labour.”

While the advert has led to accusations that the Conservatives are resorting to desperate tactics, the imagery employed is part of a long tradition of police state or military symbolism being used in British election campaigns. Historically, this has tended to be a tactic used by the Conservatives to attack Labour.

The most prominent recent example – which the Conservatives actually attempted to directly replicate in the run up to this election – is the tax bombshell poster from 1992, which argued that the average family would pay £1,250 more tax a year under a Labour government.

An older but infamous example was Winston Churchill’s claim prior to the 1945 election that Labour’s proposed expansion of the welfare state would inevitably require “some form of Gestapo” to enforce it. The underlying message in all these instances is that when Labour is put in charge of the coercive power of the state, they inevitably pose a threat to the physical or financial freedom of citizens.

Do these types of messages work? Churchill’s attack on Labour was widely seen as a shabby behavior by contemporary commentators, not least because many of the Labour leadership team had been part of his coalition cabinet during the national effort to defeat Nazi Germany. And of course, Labour won the 1945 election in a famous landslide. 

The 1992 tax bombshell message arguably did have some effect, with the Conservative Party pulling off a surprise victory in the election. But the situation then is very different to now. In the weeks before the election, Labour took a huge gamble by presenting what they termed a shadow budget. Essentially, this was a very detailed fiscal programme for the party when in office.

The idea was to convince voters that Labour would be a responsible custodian of the nation’s finances. However, the problem was it gave their Conservative opponents a huge amount of information they could use against Labour, including the cost of every spending pledge. This gave the tax bombshell poster a huge amount of credence.

Compare this with Keir Starmer‘s strategy, which involves saying very little specific and, as a consequence, giving opponents no material which could be used against Labour. In British politics, this strategy is sometimes referred to as the “Ming Vase“ approach, drawing on the late Roy Jenkin’s description of Tony Blair‘s efforts to protect his poll lead in the months before the 1997 election as being like someone moving with great care while carrying a priceless Ming vase across a very slippery polished floor.

More recently, this strategy has been referred to as the “small target” approach, a term borrowed from the Australian Labor Party in their victorious 2022 election campaign, where the party consciously attempted to avoid saying anything which could be turned into attack lines by their opponents.

There are other reasons to think that the Conservative’s surrender poster will be ineffective. Political science research suggests that election campaigns don’t really change much in terms of who voters decide to support.

Elections are largely decided by what are termed fundamentals. These are the underlying factors which shape how citizens think about politics, including things like the state of the economy or pre-existing opinions held about parties and their leaders. These are unlikely to change in the weeks or even months before an election. 

This means that asking if a campaign message will change the course of an election is probably the wrong question. Instead, we should ask what a campaign message tells us about the state of the campaign. 

The 2024 Conservative campaign and more generally Rishi Sunak’s premiership has been hindered by an astonishing lack of message discipline. The Conservatives have never been able to settle on either a clear compelling reason to vote for them nor a single message to attack Labour. Instead, they keep trying different, often contradictory messages.

Sunak has attempted to be a change candidate (including from his own Conservative predecessors) by bemoaning 30 years of the political status quo, but then stressed continuity by inviting David Cameron back into his cabinet. Labour have been attacked for having no beliefs or policies, but then portrayed as being ideological zealots who will ruthlessly use state power to achieve their goals.

The surrender advert is therefore best understood as the end of a long line of attempts to construct a message that will undermine Labour. However, political science research suggests it – like earlier attempts – won’t work because the political fundamentals of the situation the Conservatives find themselves in are long beyond the point of salvation.

Dr Nick Anstead is associate professor in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he also serves as programme director for the MSc in politics and communication.

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