Labour has scrapped all plans to run billboard posters of David Cameron during the general election campaign in what it says it is a deliberate attempt to avoid “negative personalised adverts” and raise the tone of debate.
The decision, announced by Labour’s campaign chief, Douglas Alexander, follows the release of a series of Conservative posters which have been widely criticised even by their own supporters for being ill-judged and unduly personal.
There are concerns in the Tory party that a campaign that focuses too strongly on unflattering and unstatesmanlike images of Ed Miliband and his team could backfire, and give the Labour leader in particular the status of a maligned underdog in the campaign.
The Observer understands that Labour’s effort to occupy the moral high ground has also been driven by financial necessity, as it struggles to raise sufficient funds from the unions and other sources to fight the election campaign with all the firepower it needs. Paying for billboard spaces has been one of the major outlays for political parties in recent elections.
In the first of what he says will be regular “state of the race” campaign memos to supporters and the media, Alexander said: “It already seems clear that in their campaign the Tories intend to spread falsehood, fear and smear. They will seek to avoid open debate and scrutiny. The Tories will dig deep into their donors’ pockets – and plumb new depths – in their desperation to cling on in government.”
He added: “We’ll focus our campaign on issues, not personalities – we won’t run any billboard posters with pictures of David Cameron on them.”
The Tories were even ridiculed last week by the Daily Mail for a poster showing a “fattened up” Miliband with his arm around former SNP leader Alex Salmond outside 10 Downing Street, under the heading: “Your worst nightmare … just got worse.”
The paper also suggested the party had replaced Ed Balls’s head with Salmond’s in the clearly doctored image and asked if the Tories had scored “another poster own goal”. A few weeks ago Cameron’s campaign chiefs were also taken to task when they produced a poster about the “road to economic recovery”, only for it emerge that the photograph was of a rural road in southern Germany.
Alexander said Labour’s campaign would be about issues, not personalities, and contrasted Miliband’s keenness to debate the challenges facing the country on TV with Cameron’s reluctance.
Party sources said Miliband and his team were ahead of schedule in their effort to hold personal conversations with at least 4 million voters before polling day.
With fewer than 100 days to go before the 7 May election, a new Opinium/Observer poll puts Labour one percentage point ahead of the Tories. But the race is tightening. Labour is unchanged on 33%, while the Tories are up four points on a fortnight ago, on 32%. Ukip are on 18% (-2), the Greens are unchanged on 6%, and both the Lib Dems (-2) and SNP (no change) are on 5%. This is the lowest score for Nick Clegg’s party since Opinium/Observer polls began in 2012.
Labour has admitted it expects to be outspent by around three to one by the Tories during the campaign and is adapting its methods accordingly. However, there is concern that the amount it will have available remains unclear. Senior party sources say the unions which provide much of the party’s financial support are being less generous than party chiefs had hoped.
Last week the biggest union, Unite, agreed to give Labour £1.5m. But party sources said the union had a total of some £10m in its political fund and that Labour was hoping for more. Other unions, including Unison, have yet to decide how much to give.
One source said a big problem for the unions was the lack of clarity about what would be in the Labour manifesto. A senior figure close to the talks said Miliband had not inspired trade unionists enough to make them open the purse strings. “If you are a mass movement party and you don’t move the masses, you won’t get the support when it matters.”
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