Leading article: Anyone would think there is a general eletion coming

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The Independent Online
The return of Alastair Campbell to the heart of the Labour machine, with a paid job as "head of strategic election communications", will be deplored in some quarters. He is, after all, the man who tried so aggressively and failed, ultimately, to persuade the British people of the case for war in Iraq. His reputation as a hard man goes before him and coincides with a rumpus over Labour "dirty tricks" aimed at Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, personally.

The intelligent voter, preparing him or herself for the delights of the election campaign, is best advised to take a deep breath and retain a sense of proportion. We can observe that Tony Blair demonstrates a confidence bordering on arrogance in recalling the man who "advised" the Joint Intelligence Committee on the presentation of its dossier. But we cannot complain of impropriety. Unlike in his previous incarnation, Mr Campbell's salary is being paid by the Labour Party.

Equally, much of the indignation over alleged dirty tricks seems synthetic. The Labour Party's use of the Freedom of Information Act to ask questions about Mr Howard's record as home secretary may be redolent with rich paradox - the party's commitment to the principle of open government is notably shallow - but they are not illegitimate questions. Nor were the Tory complaints about the flying pigs and "Shylock" posters well founded. It is probably a tribute to Labour's lack of anti-Semitism that it failed to occur to anyone in the party that the posters might be seen as offensive by some Jews. Yet the Conservatives could be forgiven for assuming the worst, not least because Trevor Beattie, Labour's ad man famous for his French Connection FCUK campaign, has a reputation as a tester of the boundaries of taste and decency that, like Mr Campbell's, goes before him. Historically, too, the Conservatives are entitled to feel aggrieved. Eight years ago the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against their "demon eyes" poster of Mr Blair because it depicted the Labour leader as "sinister and dishonest". Sinister and dishonest? How about a shadowy picture of Mr Howard trying to hypnotise you into believing "I can spend the same money twice"?

The truth is, though, that the ASA was wrong then and we should now take a more robust attitude to the realities of political campaigning. One of those realities is that parties will make negative and personal attacks on leading figures in other parties. Another reality is that most politicians - and Mr Blair is particularly good at this - hypocritically pretend to eschew such tactics. But there is a difference between "personal" criticism of someone's actions and record as a public figure and attacks that intrude on the private or family life of a politician. That line must be vigilantly policed, however difficult it may sometimes be to define. Labour crossed it with its untrue implication that Mr Howard as home secretary had sought to treat leniently associates of his cousin who was jailed for drug offences two years ago. The Conservatives crossed it by wrongly implying that David Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister, had fast-tracked his adoption of a child in the United States.

Generally, however, complaints of dirty tricks and negative campaigning are misplaced and counter-productive. Robust exchanges that personalise disagreements over parties' records and promises are the life blood of a functioning democracy. Bring them on.