Labour's controversial poster has echoes of similar backfiring political moves around the world

The mysterious leaking of Labour's controversial draft election poster depicting a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition as a just-married gay couple shows the fine line between landing a sneaky pre-vote punch and having it hit the thrower square in the face, writes political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

Labour's controversial poster has echoes of similar backfiring political moves around the world

The Dáil has yet to be dissolved, politicians are still officially in the middle of their three week winter hibernation and we don't even have an election date, but make no mistake - the battle for who will form the next government is in full swing.

On Sunday, the latest sign of the pre-fight shadow-boxing danced Ali-style into view when a mysteriously leaked draft Labour party election poster took aim at the opposition.

The image placed Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin and his Sinn Féin counterpart Gerry Adams in the role of a just-married gay couple, with Independent TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly and left-wing colleagues Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett cheering on, under the tag-line:

"This is one marriage we should vote NO to this year."

Despite a chorus of criticism from the opposition and claims the move sullied the historic cross-party backed marriage equality legislation, the tongue-in-cheek draft election poster - which Labour insists it did not leak - achieved the intended goal of drilling the coalition's point home that a vote for Fianna Fáil could see Sinn Féin gain power while simultaneously allowing the Government to feign ignorance on how the draft poster entered the public domain.

However, while some in Labour will rightly feel the mysterious leaking means they have landed a strong pre-election punch on the opposition while steering clear of any official responsibility for the act, they could do well to keep in mind similar moves in the past that have led to that same punch ultimately back-firing and landing on the chin of those who threw it.

The examples are scattered across general elections at home and abroad, and whatever mysterious group leaked out the cutting pro-Government, anti-opposition draft poster would do well to learn the lessons they provide.

At the height of the British general election in 2010, the UK Labour party ran a national poster campaign attempting to depict Conservative party leader David Cameron as an untrustworthy, used-car salesman type character who could not be trusted.

Sitting on a supped-up Audi with his tie hanging off his neck and a leery look in his eyes, the tag-line read: "Don't let him take Britain back to the 1980s".

The message was that Britain was better off with the stability of a Labour government over the unknown factor of the alternative.

The problem was that the only thing the public saw was a 'cooler' version of David Cameron they could more easily relate to - and, crucially, vote for - a jaw-dropping failure to read the public's mind that ultimately helped sweep the Tories into power, and Labour out.

In 1940 in the US, a separate but similarly disastrous election mud-slinging campaign again saw the exact opposite outcome to what had been intended, and has since gone down in infamy on the other side of the Atlantic.

In a move most strategists would have cautioned - nay, pleaded - against, Republican party presidential candidate Wendell Willkie had the bright idea of using the "(Democrat candidate Franklin D) Roosevelt for ex-president" slogan everywhere he went.

It made sense in theory, as it referenced throwing out the country's current commander in chief.

Franklin D Roosevelt with Winston Churchill
Franklin D Roosevelt with Winston Churchill

The only problem was Mr Willkie - now little more than a footnote in the history books - was giving his rival free publicity by promoting his name instead of, well, Mr Willkie's, allowing the failed plan to become one of the best examples of the phrase "there's no such thing as bad publicity".

Closer to home, there has been a plethora of similar election campaign missteps that have damaged the party behind them rather than their intended target.

They include Labour's dual 2011 errors of "Gimore for Taoiseach" which coincided with a subsequent drop in the polls and the Tesco-inspired "Every little hurts" which outlined the cuts they would prevent in Government before failing to do so - an issue certain to be a bone of contention in this year's election and already used by Fianna Fáil to outline the broken promises it involved.

For Fine Gael, the oft-repeated 2007 slogan that Taoiseach Enda Kenny would "End the scandal of patients on trolleys" has been repeatedly thrown back in the party's collective face as more than 5,000 people have been on trolleys since the 2011 election.

Among the other parties similar errors continue to damage their own vote-grabbing hopes, with Fianna Fáil's 1987 campaign "Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped" and 2002's "A lot done more to do" coming back to haunt them in subsequent years.

And the clearest Irish example occurred just last year when a no campaign marriage equality poster was steeped in controversy - and ultimately defeated its own purpose - when it emerged the Australian model couple used in the "Every child deserves a father and a mother" campaign were in fact in favour of... marriage equality.

Oops.

While the mystery leaking of Labour's draft Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin marriage poster has yet to suffer the same fatal flaws as the above examples, they prove that sometimes a sneaky attack and snappy message will not result in the desired response from voters.

And it is this exact point that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have been quick to jump on since the Labour poster emerged, using politically practised but wafer-thin cynical sincerity to hit out at the draft images as being "juvenile", below the belt and unfairly misusing the cross-party and widely voter backed marriage equality legislation for the Government's own ends.

In separate statements, that if not representative of a happy co-habiting couple were at least similar to a celebrity-style conscious uncoupling response from press handlers, the two opposition parties pilloried the mud-slinging antics taking place in their most sincere voice, with the impression given that they would never resort to such tactics.

However, they were still quick to throw mud of their own, with Fianna Fáil saying Labour is "in a panic", referencing the 2011 "Every little hurts" campaign and claiming the latest move has managed to "offend the principle of marriage equality with a crude and stupid image", and Sinn Féin simply saying Labour is "bereft of genuine policy" and is set for a "disastrous performance" in the election if the poster campaign is what it is offering voters.

While Labour is currently benefiting from the leaked but unused campaign advert by being able to highlight the potential risk - in its eyes - of a vote for Fianna Fáil effectively being a vote for Sinn Féin, the move also means the party has been left open to accusations it does not have ideas of its own and will run a negative campaign - hardly vote-grabbing initiatives - while simultaneously giving its rivals free publicity, albeit publicity at least one (Fianna Fáil) does not want.

The plan to marry Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin together is working for now.

But the mysterious individual who leaked the draft poster - who Labour insist is not linked to the party - could do well to remember that giving an opponent free publicity, whatever form it takes, is not always the best strategy, and that more often than not a political group's own moves can have the awful habit of causing more long-term damage to themselves than their intended targets.

Something the opposition will no doubt attempt to remind them as the election campaign take hold.

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