The Labour Party’s recent ‘attack ad’, suggesting the prime minister was soft on sexual abusers of children, raises profound, urgent questions about how a tolerant society can best defend itself against those who would wreck it, says Andrew Levi.
You want to fight fire with fire? Easy to say. Who should pull the trigger, when and why?
“He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. […] I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town”.
The opening of Jack Schaefer’s classic western novel Shane sets the scene for a vicious showdown between a rapacious rancher with his hired killers, and peaceable, decent homesteaders trying to build a good life in the harsh conditions of late nineteenth century Wyoming.
Will Shane, the horseman with a mysterious past and extraordinary gunslinging skills, save the homesteaders? Can he remain part of their community if he does?
Fighting fire with fire sounds great.
But you’re not willing to kill. And you don’t want a killer as your neighbour. Not if you’re like most decent people who just want a civilised society and to get on with life.
Sir Keir Starmer has let it be understood that he didn’t approve the attack ad which says, next to a photograph of – and over the signature of – the prime minister: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t”.
Sir Keir has also emphasised he makes “zero apologies” for the ad.
The text goes on to say: “Under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time. Labour will lock up dangerous child abusers”.
Reputable press reporting, statements by Labour insiders, publicly available polling and the context of child sexual abuse scandals, such as in Rotherham (a ‘red wall’ seat), paint a clear picture of Sir Keir’s strategy, and how it relates to this specific attack ad.
As The Guardian reported on 10 April 2023:
“… party strategists […] are unapologetic about their single-minded focus on the red wall – and on deploying whatever devices they need to encourage those voters to put an ‘X’ next to Labour on their ballot paper”.
Polling for the Channel 4 Red Wall Tracker, in March, suggests concern over crime contributes little or nothing to voter hesitancy in putting that ‘X’ next to ‘Labour’. The highly racially-charged subject of immigration, on the other hand, is (currently) easily the biggest factor. And, in public consciousness, by far the most prominent feature of the Rotherham scandal, apart from the horrific crimes themselves, has been the involvement of ‘brown men’ (of south Asian heritage). Views along the lines of ‘hanging’s too good for them’ are routinely voiced when the subject of these offenders is raised.
It’s impossible that the Labour team were unaware of all this when formulating the ad. Although it’s quite likely that they – along with most people in the UK – have limited understanding of how the demonisation of ‘aliens’ has long been a major feature of societal panics, and exploitative propaganda, about sexual abuse of children.
When Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak implied, without a proper evidential basis, that men of Pakistani heritage are frighteningly disproportionately sexual abusers of children, they chillingly evoked racist propagandists of old, most strikingly the German Nazi Party in the 1930s and 40s. The ‘Jew’ as interracial, culturally alien sex criminal – evading the dozy police and complicit society – was an obsession. It pervaded propaganda, projecting the stereotype of the ‘Jew’ as a violent sexual predator against girls and women. Antisemitic propaganda on the desecration of boys was also widely circulated.
There’s no great mystery about the reason politicians plumb these depths: it’s because they think it will work. In Labour’s case they hope it will work in a narrow range of target constituencies with swing voters whose main hesitation in choosing Labour relates to a racially-charged hot issue dominating the political agenda. For many such potential Labour voters, the barely veiled subtext will have been: “Child sexual abuse. Brown prime minister. Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”.
Senior Labour figures, MP Chris Bryant for example, have denied that the attack ad was racist and said they wouldn’t have supported it if they had thought it was. That seems a little naive, given the context set out above. But no matter. The question arises, if you want to ‘fight fire with fire’, why so squeamish about throwing an entire UK population of Pakistani heritage men under the bus? Why not use the weapon of racism if you think it will get you into power? You can’t govern if you’re in opposition. The greater good, and all that …
Why not, in fact, message even more directly the swing voters in certain key constituencies who, the polls suggest, might switch to Labour? “Labour looks after Brits. Proper ones. We’ll reduce un-British prime ministers by 100 per cent. It’s time to take back control. From people who don’t look like us”. After all, the Conservatives have said and written appalling things, and the Labour team’s calculation is
“… that while some [core Labour voters] may have to hold their nose while they vote next time, they will still do it, rather than allow the Conservatives to win their fifth general election in a row” (also from The Guardian).
Why not? Because of being aware it’s ethically wrong to do so. And fear that it won’t work anyway. Finally: unwillingness to be identified with such tactics.
We seem to be struggling with ethical considerations in contemporary politics, and the calculation about ‘what will work’ is often a complex one. We’ve now reached a point where deniability is becoming the central consideration: do anything, however repugnant, if it might work, as long as you can plausibly claim your fingerprints aren’t on it.
Karl Popper said:
“… we should claim the right to suppress [the intolerant], if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive […]. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”.
We can’t know for sure what the great philosopher would think of the United Kingdom in 2023. We can’t ask him. But we can work out for ourselves that Brexitism – only coincidentally about Brexit or the EU – is a cult, with the governing party in its thrall, heading down an authoritarian, vicious and vile route which no tolerant person should or can afford to tolerate.
The brand sticks
Go in hard. No squeamishness, for sure: the country can’t afford it. But with moral backbone, remembering what you are fighting for. And with fearlessness. And make it succeed.
There are a hundred brutal attack lines available, better than that hopeless ad and well-aligned with the values good, honest people want and need their leaders to embody.
Don’t be party to sly, nudge-nudge, wink-wink advertising which amplifies the worst instincts of those who vilify others for the colour of their skin and divide our society. Don’t be party to naivety – fake or real – about the context and impact of dodgy political campaigning, or about what it actually takes to win a political gun fight.
And yes, sometimes the leader does require a cloak of deniability. That’s how it works when tough, even stomach-turning things become necessary in the cause of defeating the intolerant.
When Shane, with the greatest skill and courage, disposed of the rancher and his henchmen, he did so to create the opportunity for the homesteaders’ leader, Joe, to be available, alive and unsullied by murder, to help others build a better future. Leaving town, Shane said to Joe’s young son:
“There’s no going back from a killing, Bob. Right or wrong, the brand sticks and there’s no going back. It’s up to you now”.
Many in the back rooms of the Labour team may feel such sentiments justify their recent actions.
They should think again. As Shane also said:
“Listen, Bob. A gun is just a tool. No better and no worse than any other tool, a shovel or an axe or a saddle or a stove or anything. Think of it always that way. A gun is as good – and as bad – as the man who carries it. Remember that”.
To read more articles by Andrew Levi, click here.