So who's afraid of Michael Howard?

Negative campaigning is the last refuge of a political party that has run out of steam
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Michael Howard's office was cock-a-hoop yesterday at the barrage of free publicity he has been given by the Labour Party as a consequence of its latest knocking copy against the Tory leader. Not a penny had been paid by the Tories to any fancy, expensive advertising agency and yet, in the very newspaper that carried the Labour advert bashing Mr Howard, the result was a front-page banner headline: "MPs decry Labour campaign mocking Howard".

Most news bulletins focused on Labour backbenchers, such as Peter Kilfoyle, expressing anger at the personalised nature of the attack. And it is quite an achievement for such an advert to be described by the Labour MEP Glenys Kinnock as "a wasted opportunity for us to get a positive message across on the European Parliament elections".

Tory MPs managed to make the Labour winter of discontent last through three general elections. But by 1992, when we tried again to track back to 1979 images of the unburied dead and rubbish piled high in the streets, first-time voters at public meetings suggested that it was time we changed the record. More than a decade had passed since the "Labour isn't working" Tory advert of the 1979 campaign, and a new generation of voters simply could not remember the previous Labour government.

Michael Howard, circa poll tax 1987, is no more plausible as a bogeyman than when the Tories tried to make something of the Tony Blair, circa 1983, who campaigned against Europe and in favour of CND. Inevitably, negative campaigning has its place, but experience suggests that, if it focuses on an individual, it tends to provoke sympathy for the victim. Labour reacted with understandable outrage against the infamous "demon eyes" Tory campaign against Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election - while successfully milking the public backlash against the advert.

Negative campaigning, especially by the governing party, is the last refuge of a political party that has run out of steam and ideas; it is a tacit admission that the subject of such an advert poses a serious electoral threat. Yesterday's Labour offering is the clearest indication that its leaders think Mr Howard is a frightening politician. Yes, he scares Labour and he frightens their MPs in marginal seats, but the voters, according to the latest YouGov poll, seem to be rather warming to him. Once an opposition leader inspires fear among the governing party, he is already half way to Downing Street. Many voters cannot yet imagine a Tory government in power after the next election - but Labour can. This alone is not a bad achievement for the Tory leader - celebrating, this week, his first six months at the helm.

Parties in office have many advantages, but defending a record is usually the least agreeable aspect of the power of incumbency. Back in 1970, when Labour was in power under Harold Wilson, a similar negative campaign against Edward Heath backfired. Posters and adverts depicting the Heath team - which included many experienced cabinet ministers from the Macmillan era - under the caption "Yesterday's men" simply reinforced the impression that the Tory front-bench was more experienced at running the country.

In his autobiography, Sir Edward recalls that this negative campaign underlined the voters' impression that it was actually the Labour government that lacked any vision for the future. Much the same can be said of the present government, and the fact that the advert has no relevance - or reference to the forthcoming European election. This is the fundamental error of any campaign which focuses on a politician's past. The easy riposte, as Mr Howard has frequently underlined during Prime Minister's Questions, is that Mr Blair may be concerned about the Tory leader's past, but the voters are more interested in the future.

A few months ago, another Howard - John Howard, the Australian Conservative Prime Minister - made an official visit to London, during which he met the Tory leader. Like Michael, John supposedly had a past to live down, having returned from political oblivion to subsequently become prime minister. Labour threw his past record at him to no avail. First, nobody could remember Howard, the 1980s' Aussie model. Second, the intensity of the attacks exposed the lack of ideas of the outgoing government.

Labour's trump card in its advert seems to be centred on the suggestion that Michael Howard was responsible for introducing the poll tax in 1987. Nevertheless, for the record, they might consider a smidgeon of accuracy. Mr Howard did not even join the Cabinet until 1990, and, by the time he became Environment Secretary in 1992, he was actually masterminding the replacement council tax. True, he was a junior minister in this department in 1987, but it was his boss, Nicholas Ridley, whose baby this was.

This own goal reveals a Labour Party that has lost the strategic calculation once provided by Alastair Campbell. The more Mr Howard is portrayed as a bogeyman, the more evident the electoral fear he inspires among dozens of Labour MPs in marginal seats.