Who’d be a politician in 2019? If the first week of the UK’s snap election campaign has been anything to go by, it’s the easiest way to guarantee your personal history being raided and your worst secrets splashed across the pages of national newspapers.
Just this week, both the governing Conservatives and main opposition Labour party have suffered embarrassing revelations about candidates, some of whom have since been forced to stand down.
For Labour, the problem has been anti-Semitism. The party has been dogged by questionable comments by members, and a criticism they’ve done little to combat record high anti-Semitic incidents in the UK.
Kate Ramsden, a Labour candidate standing for election in Scotland, was forced to end her campaign on Thursday after the Jewish Chronicle newspaper uncovered a blog post from 2014 in which she compared Israel to an “abused child who becomes an abusive adult.” She later apologized for the post.
“I can see why many Jewish people have been hurt by my words. That was never my intention and I apologise unreservedly,” she said.
This came just days after Zarah Sultana, another Labour candidate, had to apologize for tweets sent in 2015 when she was a student, saying that she would celebrate the death of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former US President George W. Bush, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She also apologized for a Facebook post in which she backed the Palestinian right to “violent resistance.”
“I do not support violence and I should not have articulated my anger in the manner I did, for which I apologize,” she said in a statement, reports the BBC.
Unlike Ramsden, she did not stand down.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been firefighting equally uncomfortable revelations about candidates and activists, failing to take rape allegations seriously enough and, in one case, collapsing a rape trial.
Conservative Nick Conrad learned how quickly a party is willing to ditch a candidate once the media storm hits - Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself condemned Conrad’s comments from 2014.
Conrad, then a radio host engaged listeners in a discussion on men and women.
“Women also have to understand that when a man’s given certain signals he’ll wish to act upon them and if you don’t wish to give out the wrong signals it’s best, probably, to keep your knickers on and not get into bed with him.”
Conrad apologized at the time for the comments. But that didn’t stop Johnson from criticizing the candidate, and once that happens, it’s usually game over for any hopeful.
He dropped out of the race this week.
This came shortly after Johnson’s Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns, was forced to resign over claims he knew that his former aide had allegedly sabotaged a rape trial. Cairns had said he did not know his aide was accused by a judge of sabotage until last week. However, BBC Wales obtained an email from over a year ago in which Cairns is clearly talking about the case. He maintains that he did nothing wrong and will comply with any investigation. He also stressed that he had nothing to do with the trial itself.
The aide, Ross England, was suspended by the Conservative Party pending an investigation and denies wrongdoing. CNN has tried to contact England for comment.
It should not come as a great surprise that these sorts of stories are now appearing so frequently in such a short span of time. They tend to hit the front pages as soon as an election campaign kicks off.
Some may call it dirty politics. Some simply call it opposition research.
With hundreds of national races, there are targets for each campaign team to take aim at.
“Opposition research has always focused on the weakest link in your opponents. This is usually individual candidates and what they have previously said or done,” says John McTernan, a former senior aide to former PM Tony Blair and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “It used to be painstaking. I used to have keep clippings in folders and hide them away for a rainy day. With social media, there is a database of someone’s pre-political life that is easily raided.”
Ask almost any political journalist in Westminster and they will be able to tell you of a time when a government or opposition spinner quietly mentioned the name of someone you had previously never heard of. If you followed up on the lead, you might soon find a dossier of research on this individual, which embarrasses the leadership of that party, landing in your inbox.
“Everyone does this,” explains Alex Dawson, former research director for the Conservative Party. “If the parties have done their jobs well, once nominations are closed and you can’t stop a candidate from being on the ballot, you’ll see a flood of stories about candidates from all parties demonstrating why they might be unfit for office.”
The relationship between the parties and the media has become increasingly symbiotic in recent years. McTernan explains: “In modern newsrooms, journalists simultaneously have fewer reporting resources and more hours of coverage to fill. During an election campaign, you can either keep putting up cabinet ministers or policy announcements. Or you can run a story about how one party has a problem with women or is chock-full of racists.”
It’s not just attacks on individual candidates.
Conservative sources have told CNN that they have built a group internally known as the “Labour Lie Unit,” an attack team whose sole job is to rebut any unsavory claims made by the opposition about Conservative policy and knock down the contents of Labour’s own policies.
And, on the Labour side, a campaign source explains that their party is taking a “methodical” approach to opposition research. “All parties, us included, research their opponents.”
The reason for doing this is simple. As Dawson explains, in any election cycle, you want to spend as much time “getting your own policies across to voters”. Dropping stories about your opponents “ties them up, giving you space to get on with your own campaign”.
An unusual characteristic of this election is the sincere contempt that the two main party leaders have for one another. Johnson claims opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is a dangerous Marxist and a threat to national security. Only this week, he compared Corbyn to Joseph Stalin. Corbyn, on the other hand, argues that Johnson’s Conservatives are so wealthy and out of touch that they will sell the UK’s beloved National Health Service to the US and put the livelihoods of millions at risk.
Both men are, of course, speaking in hyperbole and reject the claims of the other. However, the sentiments seem to be sincerely held. So, if this week has been anything to go by, the run-up to the December 12 election will be vicious and personal, as further dossiers are dug up and both sides are more than willing to play dirty.