The positive case for negative campaigning
Jock Coats was a Liberal Democrat candidate in a marginal ward in last week's elections. He is also an 'anarcho geo mutualist libertarian' who writes extensively about his personal views in a blog. Jock holds some views which are not currently part of official Liberal Democrat policy, for example that the vast majority of recreational drugs should be legalised.
During the election campaign, Labour put round a leaflet which included a selection of quotes from his blog, titled "'Drugs Laws are Pointless' says Lib Dem candidate". Jock ended up coming third in the elections, though his share of the vote actually fell by less than some of his non-anarcho-geo-mutualist-libertarian colleagues in neighbouring wards.
Writing after the election, Jock describes this leaflet as 'scurrilous', 'one of the worst personal attack leaflets that some of his opponents had ever seen', and 'an attempt to drag the campaign into the gutter' instead of concentrating on issues within the remit of the city council.
There are clearly forms of negative campaigning which are unethical - for example the former councillor from another political party who had a habit of shouting abuse at Labour candidates when they were out with their children, and who claimed untruthfully in her leaflets and on the doorstep that her opponent this time was lying when he said that he did voluntary work with disabled children.
But this is a very different kind of case. If Jock felt so strongly that parties should avoid negative personal attacks, he could also have mentioned the Lib Dem leaflets delivered across Oxford, including, to the best of my knowledge, his own ward, attacking the local Labour MP as 'the most hypocritical man in Oxford' about post office closures (not a matter under the remit of the city council), let alone some of the leaflets that they've come up with in other parts of the country. When I last stood for election, Lib Dem leaflets said that a vote for me was a vote for the war on Iraq, even though I'd campaigned against the war.
Moreover, if quoting Jock's views using his actual words is such a bad personal attack, what does that make his description of many politicians who get elected as 'psychopaths', or politicians who don't share his views on drugs as 'murderers'?
But it's not just the case that all parties do negative campaigning so no one should try and take the moral high ground.
There is nothing unethical about trying to hold candidates for election accountable for the views that they hold. There is a general presumption that if someone stands for election as a candidate for a party, that their views will be roughly in line with those of their party, not on absolutely every single issue, but on most. When someone has radically different views from that of their party on an issue which lots of people care about, it is relevant information which helps electors come to a more informed choice. If you stand for election, you should be prepared to defend or explain the opinions that you hold and which you've made publicly available. If you don't want to have to do this, then don't be a candidate, or don't write on the internet about things which you don't want people to know that you think.
The danger of this is that it ends up discouraging people who aren't prepared to tow a narrowly conventional line from getting involved in politics. Which is why I have one final observation. After they saw the leaflet from Labour, the Lib Dems decided not to respond to it except by writing about it on the internet (where hardly anyone would see it), and instead to continue with pushing the generic Liberal Democrat messages in their leaflets. I think this was a mistake.
Jock obviously really cares about his geo-mutualist-anarcho-libertarian views, on drugs and on a whole range of other issues, and didn't particularly care about the narrowly technocratic centre-right message about how it made such a difference to raise council tax by £2/year rather than £4/year. I think he'd have done much better to have defended his views and tried to win people over to his way of thinking.
All of us have some strongly held views which are opposed by a majority of people. If you cry foul whenever those views are challenged, and pretend to be something that you are not, then you will never get anywhere in democratic elections, and quite right too. But if you stand up for your views, then there's at least a chance that some will be persuaded, and others will admire you even if you don't manage to win them over.