Labour was accused of “gutter politics” on Friday as it refused to retract an advertisement claiming Rishi Sunak opposed the imprisonment of adults convicted of sexual crimes against children.
The Labour ad posted on Thursday on Twitter stated 4,500 people convicted of sexually assaulting someone under the age of 16 in England and Wales since 2010 had served no time in prison.
Coupled with a picture of the prime minister and his signature, the ad asked: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”
Labour has sought to make criminal justice a major theme ahead of local elections in England on May 4, claiming the party would take a tougher stance on key issues than the Conservatives.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer believes he can score political points against the Tories given that he was director of public prosecutions, supervising flagship cases against criminals, from 2008 until 2013.
But a broad range of politicians strongly criticised Labour’s ad focused on Sunak.
John McDonnell, the leftwing Labour MP, said on Twitter the ad was not the sort of politics his party should be engaged in and called for its withdrawal. “We, the Labour party, are better than this,” he added.
Lee Anderson, the Conservative deputy chair who is often accused of inflammatory rhetoric, said the Labour ad was “gutter politics”. “I hate all this dog whistle politics and so do many Labour MPs,” he added.
The Liberal Democrats said Labour’s ad was not one they would use.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chair of the House of Commons defence committee, said the ad was “appalling” and called on Labour to delete it.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former vice-chair of the party, blamed the ad partly on the tone set by the Tories.
Warsi linked it to comments by home secretary Suella Braverman in which she said that the grooming of young women for sexual exploitation was perpetrated “predominantly” by British Pakistani men.
“Disgraceful comments by Braverman over the weekend [have] triggered an appalling fight into the gutter,” said Warsi.
“At what point are we going to talk about the victims? Where is the protection for the half million kids sexually exploited in our country every year?”
Asked whether it would retract the ad, Labour said the Conservatives had “left dangerous convicted criminals free to roam the streets”.
“Labour is the party of law and order, and we will implement tougher sentences for dangerous criminals,” it added.
When asked whether she believed Sunak disapproved of sending paedophiles to prison, shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell declined to endorse the ad.
But she added: “I stand by what this tweet and this campaign is trying to highlight.”