Politicians, academics, and NGOs call on parties to stop using “attack ads”

2023-04-28 10:09:00 +0100

A coalition of politicians, academics, and campaigners have today written to the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats urging them to stop the use of “attack ads” which they say are “undermining the culture of our political system and the credibility of those elected to serve it.”

Figures including Zoom-legend Jackie Weaver, Labour’s Baroness Ruth Lister, and the directors of think-tanks Compass and Unlock Democracy have all signed the letter which has been coordinated by Compassion in Politics. 

In it they urge political leaders to stop using “attack ads” or other forms of “underhand” advertising. They point to recent examples of adverts which have levelled highly controversial accusations against individual politicians - including Labour’s recent ads targeting Rishi Sunak - and instances where parties have distributed leaflets using the branding of another party.

The signatories argue that this kind of advertising is undermining public confidence, contributing to a rising culture of hate, and destroying any hope of building consensus around key issues. 

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The letter has also been signed by a number of high profile psychologists including Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation. Reflecting their specific concerns, the coalition points out that “fear-based” advertising tends to ultimately backfire by making the public less willing to accept change or new ideas. “Fear is destructive to any organisation seeking to curry favour or gain support” they say.

Jennifer Nadel, Co-Director of Compassion in Politics, said:

“Attack ads represent one of the worst products of our highly-competitive, winner-takes-all approach to politics. Rather than seek to build consensus around key issues - rising inequality, climate change, and increasing societal divisions - they simply destroy reputations, public confidence, and political engagement. By peddling hate we exacerbate the toxicity that is already so prominent in our politics. We need our political leaders to display the courage and determination necessary to build something better. They can start by rejecting these negative tactics and making a positive appeal to the electorate that is based on their vision for the country and their solution to our most pressing problems.”

Letter in full:

We the undersigned request that you cease the use of “attack ads” and other forms of underhand advertising and ensure that all future campaign adverts contain content which is truthful and a message focused on issues over and above personalities.

The current trends in party political advertising are undermining the culture of our political system and the credibility of those elected to serve it. In recent weeks parties have sought to mimic one another’s brands[1] and spread spurious accusations about the character and conduct of individual politicians.[2] These actions are not befitting any political party wishing to uphold the standards of a modern democracy.

We are particularly concerned about the following impacts that these adverts are having on our politics and public:

  • Further erosion of trust. Trust in UK politicians is plummeting. Polling by Compassion in Politics found that two-thirds of the public simply do not trust what politicians say. Half of the public saw their trust in politicians fall in the twelve months to April 2022.[3] Using inaccurate claims and false identities in campaign advertising will only accelerate the decline of public faith and engagement in politics. It will also make it much harder for parties to gain support for the policies they seek to introduce or acceptance for the messages they hope to communicate.
  • Rising culture of hate. At various times in the last decade politicians have come together to - rightly - decry the culture of our politics and have committed to root out hate, improve debates, and overcome division. And yet the examples of political advertising that we have shared with you suggest these promises are nothing more than that - promises. “Attack ads” serve only to poison the water that we must all drink from. They legitimise the use of inflammatory language (language which is likely to be returned in-kind) and give fuel to the anger, hate, and intolerance many people feel towards their representatives. After two sitting MPs have been murdered in the past seven years and many Members have reported routinely receiving death threats, this kind of language is grossly irresponsible.
  • Fear is destructive: Fear-based messages create, in the receiver, a sense of threat and danger. That triggers our mammalian minds to zero-in on survival and the preservation of the status quo. It limits our receptivity to new ideas, appeals for help and support, and our faith in the possibility of change or improvement in our present circumstances. Fear is destructive to any organisation seeking to curry favour or gain support.
  • Failure to build consensus. Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible. These kinds of adverts - which erode trust, increase hate, and stoke fear - make doing the possible virtually impossible. They distract attention from serious issues and prevent parties from looking to build the kind of constructive consensus they will need in order to pass effective, mandated legislation. At a time when we face a climate crisis, worsening inequality, and increasing intolerance we need informed and constructive debate.

For these reasons and more we urge you to stop using “attack ads” and agree, together with your fellow leaders, to campaign with respect, civility, and compassion. The upcoming local elections provide the ideal time at which to make such a commitment and to put that commitment into practice.

And looking beyond the elections we request that you support the introduction of legislation to safeguard the primacy of honesty in political debates and communication - including ensuring that adverts are based on factual information and are free from inflammatory language.

We hope you will work with us to improve the standards of our political debate, better engage the public in the decisions that affect them, and to address the urgent crises we face as a nation.


Liam Atwal, psychotherapist

Teresa Baraclough, counsellor

Jaskaran Basran, Compassionate Mind Foundation

Clare Beavan, Co-Founder, MoodWise

Tom Brake, Director, Unlock Democracy

Malcolm Clarke, psychologist

Paul Colley, psychotherapist

Brooke Deterline, Founder & Partner of Courageous Leadership & Courageous Democracy

Judith Forrest, Psychotherapist and Trustee, Compassionate Mind Foundation

Professor Paul Gilbert Gilbert, Compassionate Mind Foundation

Steve Harmer, psychologist

Matt Hawkins, Co-Director, Compassion in Politics

Peter Hirst, psychologist

Dr Syd Hiskey, Clinical Psychologist

Sandy Juric, psychotherapist

Neal Lawson, Director, Compass

Baroness Ruth Lister, OBE

Dr Sarah Masson, Clinical Psychologist

Michael Mulvey, Coordinator of the Independent Constitutionalists UK (IC-UK)

Jane O'Rourke, Child, Adolescent & Family Psychotherapist Founder, MINDinMIND

Professor Helen Pankhurst, CBE, Convenor of Centenary Action

Tracey Patrick, Co-Founder, MoodWise

Ptarmigan Plowright, Compassionate Mind Foundation

Gavin Robinson, therapist.

Alan Story, Co-Founder, GET PR DONE!

Jackie Weaver, Chief Officer, Cheshire Association of Local Councils 

Dr Alice Wells, Clinical Psychologist

Claire Willsher, Psychotherapist

Dr Wendy Wood, Compassionate Mind Foundation.

[1] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/tories-accused-sending-deliberately-misleading-29016207

[2] https://news.sky.com/story/labour-frontbencher-admits-tweet-against-rishi-sunak-not-to-everybodys-taste-after-backlash-12851616

[3] https://assets.nationbuilder.com/cip/pages/304/attachments/original/1663327185/OP19111_Compassion_in_Politics_Trust_and_Civility_-_Final_Tables.xlsx?1663327185