Al's back, spinning Labour to victory

Labour has been accused of launching a dirty tricks campaign against the Conservatives in the run-up to the General Election – Political Editor Graham Dines looks at a hero's return for Alastair Campbell.

Labour has been accused of launching a dirty tricks campaign against the Conservatives in the run-up to the General Election – Political Editor Graham Dines looks at a hero's return for Alastair Campbell.

THE undeclared General Election is still months away, but Labour and the Conservatives have dug in for the long haul with charge and counter charge on dirty tricks and negative campaigning.

As Labour prepares for its pre-election conference in Gateshead this weekend, the party has gone on an all-out offensive after being shamed into withdrawing what only be interpreted as anti-Semitic posters depicting Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin.

Just days later, a story was planted in The Times suggesting that former Prime Minister John Major was trying to block moves under the Freedom of Information Act to release deeply buried sensitive Treasury documents relating to Black Wednesday – the day sterling crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), destroying the last vestiges of the Major government's reputation.

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Denying the accusation, Mr Major – who yesterday confirmed to the Treasury that he was "content" for the documents to be published –fingered former Government communications supremo Alastair Campbell – who is now masterminding Labour's election tactics – for what he called Labour's "spin, smear, sleaze and shabby tactics."

Labour and the Tories have both lodged requests under the Freedom of Information Act to dig into each other's records and in a statement over the weekend published on the party's website, Labour's General Election Co-ordinator Alan Milburn – whose £130,000 salary is being funded by you and me as taxpayers – defended the Blair re-election tactics.

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"The press is full of allegations against the Party's campaign and it is important we all understand the game being played by the Conservatives and their media supporters. It is to seek to render illegitimate totally legitimate campaigning.

"It is to seek to label our campaign as negative – which it is not – so that they can then justify what will be the most negative campaign ever seen in this country, directed very personally at the Prime Minister. It is also to seek to deflect us in our determination to ensure the public knows the reality of Mr Howard's Tories, past, present and future.

"For the record, people should know that Alastair Campbell, who I am delighted to see back in the Labour team for the election campaign, had nothing whatever to do with the Freedom of Information requests that have become the subject of a good deal of media comment.

"John Major has accused Alastair of being involved in the request for papers relating to Black Wednesday. Mr Major, and his BBC interviewer, and those Sunday newspaper reporters who wrote up the story, know for a fact that the request came from the Financial Times. But they will not let the facts get in the way of an attempt to undermine our campaign.

"So members (of the Labour Party) and supporters need to know this is the game they will play. We will continue to put forward the positive policy agenda.

"But we will make no apology for reminding people of Mr Howard's role in the poll tax, the debacle of the ERM, mass unemployment, interest rates and inflation through the roof and cuts in police to save money. These are legitimate areas for inquiry and campaigning."

However, Mr Milburn still refuses to apologise for the infamous flying pigs and Shylock posters. "The recent fuss over posters on this website and the Tory record are designed to create the pretence that these are somehow the same as the kind of negative and personalised campaign the Tories' Australian-led campaign team are planning."

Alan Milburn says Labour's response "must not to be stoop to their level" –which seems rather rich seeing his party started it all.

He righteously said Labour had to continue to be "professional, focused and disciplined. To fight on our record, and on theirs. To fight on our policies for the future, and on theirs."

Tory Party co-chairman Dr Liam Fox hit back. "I think that what we've seen in the last couple of weeks, with Labour having to withdraw the posters and the allegations of Alastair Campbell coming back in for a dirty tricks campaign, tells us two things.

"One is that the Government, despite the fact that they would say want to go forward, not back, seem intent on talking about history rather than their own record or even more importantly, about the future.

"And secondly it tells us that behind the holier than thou facade of Tony Blair there exists a team and willingness to engage in pretty abusive politics."

Perhaps the most sinister intervention has come from Peter Mandelson – who resigned twice from key positions in the Government and who was rewarded with a safe berth as Britain's only European commissioner.

The former Labour communications director inexplicably issued a warning to the BBC. "I understand why the Tories will be gunning for Alastair Campbell because they fear his campaigning skills. What I understand less is why the BBC should be joining with the Tories in driving that agenda.

"In my experience of these things, parties which shout about dirty tricks and the like tend to do so because they fear a direct hit in some vulnerable part of their political anatomy.

"I suggest the BBC concentrates on the issues and helps the public to understand the policies and the choices that are at stake in the election rather than engage in the process politics, the trivialisation of the campaign."

He's certainly right to call it "trivialisation." But it and the BBC's coverage of it has got absolutely nothing to do with the European Commission and Mr Mandelson would be well advised not to issue veiled threats and thus ratchet up the deepening poisonous relations between the two main parties.

The person who will be smiling the most at all this is Charles Kennedy. By abusing each other, Labour and the Conservatives are ignoring the Liberal Democrats – a tactic they may both come to regret.

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