The election campaign of David Cameron appears to be based entirely upon the message, "Elect me, because I'm not Gordon Brown". I have recently seen Conservative posters featuring a smiling Gordon Brown, with slogans such as, "I've increased the gap between rich and poor. Vote for me". It would seem a most bizarre tactic to portray your opponent soliciting a vote, and not one I have ever come across before in such an open form, but negativity has a long history in British electioneering.
Philip Guedalla wrote his essay on Andrew Bonar Law, "the unknown Prime Minister", (1922-23) more than 80 years ago, but it has much relevance to the present Conservative strategy. He begins by drawing attention to the purely negative aspect of campaigning:- "It was, to the public mind, the sole virtue of Mr Gladstone that he was not Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli); it was the proudest boast of Lord Salisbury that he was not Mr Gladstone; it is the political stock-in-trade of quite a number of living gentlemen that they are not Mr Lloyd George. But perhaps the most impressive demonstration of these somewhat negative qualifications for high office is to be found in the circumstances attending the political advent of Mr Bonar Law". Guedalla then says of Bonar Law's unexpected rise to the party leadership:- "It was for him, in those days, that he was neither Mr Austen Chamberlain nor Mr Walter Long. The claim was a high one ........ It was the leading function of Conservative statesmen at that time not to be Mr Asquith; and if, in addition to this negative, Mr Law could boast that he was neither of the opposition leaders as well, his prospects were demonstrably growing". The essay consludes:- "He became Prime Minister of England for the simple and satisfying reason that he was not Mr Lloyd George. At an open competition in the somewhat negative exercise of not being Mr Lloyd George that was held in November 1922, Mr Law was found to be more indubitably not Mr Lloyd George than any of the other competitors; and in consequence, by the mysterious operation of the British Constitution, he reigned in his stead". On a similar theme, the Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, after a landslide defeat at the general election of 1906, wrote "The greatest election victory of modern times was won on the basis of no policies whatsoever!"
It will be noted that all these examples of negative campaigning were successful. It remains to be seen whether David Cameron does as well.