LONDON — Britain’s governing Labour Party is under a hail of criticism following the release — and hasty withdrawal — of a pre-election poster campaign widely condemned as antisemitic.
The controversial posters, reportedly the personal handiwork of one of Labour’s top strategists, used what critics called thinly veiled stereotypes in their portrayals of opposition Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, who is Jewish. One poster showed Howard as a shadowy, mesmeric figure swinging a gold watch, with the undulating caption, “I can spend the same money twice.” Critics said the poster evoked such antisemitic literary figures as Charles Dickens’s Fagin and William Shakespeare’s Shylock.
The other poster showed Howard and his top economic adviser, Oliver Letwin, who is also Jewish, as flying pigs. The poster, meant to mock Conservative tax-cutting pledges, carried the slogan, “The day the Tory sums add up” — a visual pun on the saying, “When pigs fly.”
The posters, which drew a storm of protests after they first appeared on a party Web site in mid-January, were described initially as the work of an advertising firm, TBWA London. This week, however, sources at the ad agency told reporters that the posters had been conceived at Labour Party headquarters by Alastair Campbell, formerly communications chief to Prime Minister Tony Blair and currently communications director of his re-election campaign.
Campbell admitted creating the flying pigs poster, but not the swinging watch.
Blair, now in his second term, is expected to call parliamentary elections in May. He leads the opposition Conservatives by an estimated six points in the polls.
The posters were withdrawn last week after drawing complaints from members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the nation’s chief Jewish representative body, as well as from some leading Jewish Labour Party donors.
Ben Barkow, director of London’s Wiener Library, a research institute on Nazism and fascism, said the posters were “unwittingly playing into the hands of those with antisemitic prejudices” and “an indication of how the unconscious legacy of antisemitic stereotypes is leaking out from the political left.” In particular, said Raphael Gross, director of the Leo Baeck Institute, a research center on German-speaking Jewry, there is “an antisemitic tradition bringing together Jews and pigs, which goes back to the Middle Ages.” Some leading observers dismissed the complaints as overblown, arguing that the imagery was relatively tame and probably too esoteric to reflect any antisemitic intent, either in the designers or the likely audience. One outspoken Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchak Schochet of Mill Hill Synagogue in North-West London, called the poster “100% kosher” and said the protests were “bordering on hysteria.”
From Labour’s point of view, the blunder hardly could have come at a less propitious time, when rising attacks on Jews and Jewish property already have made antisemitism a topic of national debate again. Antisemitic incidents of all kinds climbed from a pre-intifada tally of 270 in 1999 to 375 in 2003, according to the Community Security Trust, British Jewry’s defense arm, with actual assaults on Jews up from 33 to 54 during the same period: Is latest report, to be published shortly, is expected to confirm a further sharp rise last year. Only a month earlier, the head of the national Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, warned that the trends were “going in the wrong direction,” highlighting the endurance of a “deep strain of antisemitism” within the British establishment, as well as “old-fashioned hatred” on the right. Ironically, the poster row erupted in the national media just one day after extensive BBC TV coverage of both a ceremony to mark Britain’s fifth Holocaust Memorial Day, attended by the queen, and the 60th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. Some political insiders suggested it was unlikely that the posters’ bigoted implications could have been unwitting, given the legendary sophistication of Campbell, the Labour spin-doctor who is said to have designed them. A longtime Blair intimate and a British political legend, he left Blair’s office last year after becoming a lightning rod for the feud between the government and the BBC over the use of intelligence in arguing for the Iraq War. Campbell is considered the target of accusations that the government “sexed up” intelligence to justify the war.
Campbell’s volatile personality became the center of debate again this week, after he protested the BBC’s coverage of the posters with an obscene e-mail message. “Now f*** off and cover something important, you twats!” Campbell wrote. He later wrote another e-mail retracting the first, which he said was a joke sent by mistake.
Conservative spokesmen, for their part, were pressing the case for all it was worth. Tory parliamentary spokesman Julian Lewis called the swinging-watch poster an “outrageous Fagin smear.” Labour party leaders, while careful to acknowledge that feelings had been hurt, insisted the dust-up was largely partisan, not ethnic. “I fully understand and respect the views of those who have concerns,” election strategist Alan Milburn said during a parliamentary debate. But he said, “Those poster designs were not in any shape or form antisemitic. What they were was anti-Tory, and I make no apology for that whatsoever.” Not everyone in Labour ranks was mollified. One leading Jewish lawmaker, Louise Ellman, vice-chair of the Labour Friends of Israel, said the Fagin poster was “very insensitive.” “I do not think it is deliberately antisemitic, but we should not have such posters,” she told the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.
For Howard, demonic imagery is a familiar burden in his political career.
Because his forebears hail from Transylvania, he often has been the butt of Dracula jokes. One former political colleague once proclaimed memorably that there was “something of the night” about him. The latest portrayal of Howard-as-mesmerist, his head and hands emerging out of a black background, might well have been alluding to this. One leading Jewish journalist, Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail, suggested that the image carried “the subliminal message that Mr. Howard is not to be trusted because he is a Jew” and drew on “the ancient canard that the Jews are some kind of sinister conspiracy manipulating the world to their own nefarious ends.”
Simon Rocker is a senior journalist with the Jewish Chronicle of London.