Labour have released a political advertisement on their YouTube channel with the title “You can’t trust David Cameron with the NHS”. While I would agree with this title, the contents are wholly reprehensible and have the potential, if left unchallenged, to signify a dark turn in British politics and Labour campaign practise.
My discomfort with this advert stems from the fact that it is a form of negative campaigning. At no point does the advert outline Labour’s own policies in the health arena. It merely lists the failures of the coalition government. More than this though, it also teeters precariously close to being an attack ad. Government is not run by one person, it is run by a cabinet of ministers and supported by political parties, but this advert attacks David Cameron personally. The advert was likely created in response to the Conservatives having published a similarly distasteful advert of their own, which took aim at both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Clearly, though, stooping to the unscrupulous level of your opponents is never a positive campaign strategy.
The British electorate has been mostly shielded from the practise of negative campaigning, as political advertising on radio and television is strictly regulated, allowing only occasional time slots for party political broadcasts. The situation is manifestly different in the United States, where negative campaigning forms a central part of political campaigns, is essentially unregulated, involves billions of dollars, and cultivates a very dark and petty political culture.
The advent of the web, and its rapid ascent to the upper echelons of media consumption, while a positive thing for political discourse in many ways, has the potential to diminish the tempered and healthy state of political advertising enjoyed in Britain up to this point. General spending constraints are placed upon political parties and election candidates, but the legislation which regulates political advertising only does so for radio and television, leaving political advertising on the web essentially unregulated. Political parties, if they wish to do so and are able to raise the necessary funds, have the capacity to publish any type of political advertising on the web with no strings attached.
In order to prevent British political advertising from degrading into the obnoxious form present in the United States, the major political parties must come together to establish a cross-party consensus on how to move forward in adapting regulation in this area to respond to the innovations of new media. For instance, web-based political advertising could be limited in its quantity and restricted to only being displayed during particular periods of time. What is ultimately important, however, is that all parties recognise that the rise of negative campaigning in any significant quantity will considerably damage the tenor of debate, damaging all parties equally and substantially diminishing the quality of political discourse in Britain.