A devil of a game to play

Casting Tony Blair as the devil may backfire on the Tories, but should Labour ignore it or reply in kind?
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To understand the reference point for the Tories' latest anti- Labour newspaper advertisement, it is worth tuning into The Stand, the watchably vacuous Stephen King TV mini-series. The high point of the series's supernatural hocum is a diabolic figure who looks normal except that his eyes, like those of Tony Blair in the ad, turn into piercing crimson orbs whenever he meets resistance to his will. On the cover of the King novel It, similarly menacing red eyes stare out from a street drain. Consciously or not, Brian Mawhinney, the Tory chairman, and his advertising guru Maurice Saatchi are using the visual idiom of the master of best-selling junk horror.

The depiction of Tony Blair as Stephen King super-villain is a new low point, even in an age of increasingly negative US-derived campaigning. For even the most tendentious and scarily negative advertisements during previous British and American campaigns have been about something: a policy, such as Clinton's economic record in Arkansas, or a decision, such as that taken by Michael Dukakis to parole a black convict. But Sunday's advertisement in three national newspapers doesn't attack Labour on specifics at all.

Tory campaigners maintain that they are just setting the context, and that the specifics, some of which were laid out in the party's equally Stephen King-like party political broadcast last month, will be followed up later. Nevertheless, the brief text of Sunday's advertisement brutally rips out of context some remarks by Clare Short in her interview with the New Statesman last week. Ms Short did indeed say that it was "dangerous" for Labour to depict itself as utterly different from Labour in the past. That may be damaging to Mr Blair's interests, but the danger Ms Short had in mind was that of losing the election. To use the concept of "danger" as the Tories currently do about Labour, Ms Short's fear about the impact Labour policies may have on the country is, if anything, that they won't be dangerous enough.

In the hard-boiled world of political advertising, that criticism will no doubt be airily dismissed as hopelessly high-minded. Tory campaign managers believe that one fault of the Bush 1992 strategy was that it wasn't negative enough. There was a tendency, they say, among Republican spin doctors to criticise Clinton for "flip flops", the transatlantic equivalent of the U-turn.

The danger of that is that if you accuse your opponent of a U-turn, you are really saying to the voters little more than that he got it wrong before but that now he's got it broadly right. This is rather what Bob Dole has just done in response to President Clinton's decision to allow through the Republicans' welfare Bill. By contrast, the Tories did not use that tactic at a moment when they might have - on Tony Blair's decision to hold devolution referendums on Wales and Scotland. U-turns are benign corrections of previous errors. They certainly don't frighten the electors. And that is what Dr Mawhinney is determined to do.

The question is, how should Labour respond? It will resist the temptation to ignore it altogether. Opinion poll findings on the "New Labour, New Danger" strategy, of which Sunday's advertisement was an integral part, show overwhelming hostility to it. So, too, did an instant series of 50 interviews carried out for Labour in central London yesterday morning - 40 per cent said it made them less favourable to the Tories and only 4 per cent more so. But what people say about an advertisement is only part of the story of how they respond to it. Even Tory strategists admit privately that Blair scores much more highly than John Major as a strong leader; but they claim that his rating as reliable and honest is not as high. If they can translate his strength into something demonic, far-fetched as it may seem, then they will have succeeded. The fact that the voters don't see Blair as dangerous is precisely a reason, in the minds of Tory campaigners, for trying to make him seem so.

So Labour should hit back. But how? As it happens, the lines of its potentially most successful strategy are already clear. In the next few days, billboards will go up both in the UK and - to reach Britons in their most popular holiday destination - in Spain, denouncing "The Same Old Tories, the Same Old Lies".

There is a risk in this strategy because it cuts across one of the older conventional wisdoms of campaigning: that by defending yourself against claims made by your opponents, for example on tax or law and order, you help to give credence to those claims. But part of the failure of the Kinnock campaign in 1992 was that if you don't rebut the claims early enough they are more likely to stick.

But the second point is that however technically powerful a campaign it mounts, Labour shouldn't reply in kind. Interestingly, only a minority (20 per cent) of electors interviewed for Labour in yesterday's sample thought that the party should respond at all; but even they thought it should do so in a different tone. If it doesn't base its own campaign in solid fact, it can't make an issue of the techniques that the Tories are using. And by making an issue out of the Tories' campaign, it may strike a chord with an electorate deeply cynical about the claims of all politicians.

Nor is this just a matter of Sunday's depressingly content-free advertisement. Michael Portillo implied yesterday that a Fabian pamphlet by a Labour candidate meant that the party was threatening the monarchy. As Frank Dobson pointed out, it no more does that than a recent article by a Tory candidate proposing "MonWatch" - a body to regulate the monarchy.

According to an Evening Standard article yesterday by Peter Mandelson, head of Labour's election campaign, Mr Blair "will not be dragged down into the Tories' gutter" and will instead focus on "Labour's message about the country's future". It remains to be seen how far Labour carries out these brave words in practice. But it is probably in its own interests - as well as that of the national political debate - for it do so. There is some high ground here, which Conservative Central Office seems hell- bent on vacating.