Labour is to set up an “attack unit” to hit back immediately at Conservative attempts to target Ed Miliband in the clearest sign yet that the party is preparing for a “dirty war” at next year’s general election.
Mr Miliband will model Labour’s hard-hitting approach on a successful rebuttal campaign by supporters of Barack Obama in his 2012 presidential campaign. Labour will step up its media monitoring and will reply instantly to attacks on the party and its leader in Conservative-supporting newspapers.
Labour officials insist the tougher line does not mean they will “match smear with smear” or declare “class war” by highlighting the privileged backgrounds of David Cameron and George Osborne. However, Labour will portray the Tories as “out of touch” and “standing up for the wrong people”.
The Labour battle plan is being discussed in the United States this week by Michael Dugher, a Shadow Cabinet member and Labour vice-chairman who is in charge of the party’s communications. In Chicago, he met David Axelrod, the senior Obama strategist who Labour hired last week to advise on its general election campaign. He is meeting Mike Donilon and Larry Grisolano from Mr Axelrod’s company AKPD, who will also work for Labour.
Mr Dugher will hold detailed discussions in Washington on Thursday about rebuttal techniques and advertising with Jim Margolis, a political consultant who worked on the Obama 2012 campaign. On Wednesday he will meet Media Matters for America, an Internet-based, not for profit research group which monitors material in print, broadcasts and online to expose, rebut and refute “conservative misinformation”. A similar operation will be “a major element” in Labour’s election effort, according to party sources.
Labour strategists fear that the Conservatives will encourage their newspaper allies to portray Mr Miliband as “weak” and “weird”. Labour is bracing itself for the most dirty, personalised election since 1992, when Neil Kinnock came under constant attack. Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Sun ran a front page headline with the Labour leader’s head in a lightbulb, saying: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” (below).
Mr Dugher told The Independent: “We won’t put up with what Kinnock did in 1992. When people tell lies about Labour, we’re going to nail that lie, and quickly.” He added: “This will be the most technologically advanced campaign ever. It will be faster, more direct and discursive and will be the first to be fought online as much as it will on the doorstep and over the airwaves.”
Mr Dugher said: “We know the Tories and some of their friends in the media are intent on making this a nasty, negative and personal campaign against Labour and prominent Labour people. We are absolutely determined to call out our opponents when they distort the truth or smear Labour people - and there's much we can learn from the masters of media and online rebuttal in the US.”
The shadow Cabinet Office minister, who was a Downing Street spin doctor under Gordon Brown, said: “The Obama campaign inspired America because of its message of change in 2008 and because of its relentless focus in 2012 on raising living standards for hardworking people. But it also inspired because of its innovative, inclusive, cutting-edge campaigning which combined community organising with massive digital engagement. Labour’s communications strategy will encompass the best lessons from both campaigns.”
He added: “Labour is undergoing a communications revolution similar to that of the 1980s and 1990s. We now have a standalone digital team boosting online engagement, a comms operation targeting media in the  battleground seats, and we're setting up a unit which will prioritise rapid rebuttal and expose this Government's failure to make hardworking Britain better off. Add to that, we now have local organisers in every target seat.”
Tory officials suspect the appointment of Mr Axelrod signals a shift towards “negative campaigning” by Labour, despite the party’s denials. They said the Obama team ran a “soak the rich” campaign against Mitt Romney in 2012. Labour has promised to restore a 50p rate on incomes over £150,000 a year and branded the Coalition’s decision to reduce it to 45p “a tax cut for millionaires”.
Labour insists that attacking the Tories’ policy choices is wholly legitimate.
Mr Axelrod likes to build campaigns around a party leader’s “story” and so Labour’s desire to protect Mr Miliband’s reputation may be even more important.
Mr Miliband showed he is willing to take on hostile newspapers over alleged “dirty tricks” by demanding an apology after the Daily Mail described his Marxist academic father as a “man who hated Britain.”