A couple of months have passed since the Damian McBride ‘smeargate' email debacle. The reaction at the time was typical of political scandals: genuine outrage from broad sections of the public appalled at the gutter-politics which were laid bare, and mock outrage from politicians who were well aware of the existence and use of such tactics but who only spoke up when circumstances forced their hand. McBride's tactics went beyond the pale, not least because in part he chose totarget the families of his opponents. But at a conceptual level, McBride's objective was no different to that held by political operatives the world over: defeat your opponents.

That objective forces political professionals into a moral minefield where the otherwise reprehensible can seem suddenly acceptable. The annals of political history are littered with examples of campaigns that have adopted an ‘ends justify the means approach' in attempting to secure victory. Just consider the famous ‘Willie Horton' advert deployed for the benefit of George Bush's presidential campaign in 1988 by an ostensibly ‘independent' campaign group. The ad was designed primarily as an attack on Michael Dukakis's policies on crime, but it also played to racist fears in an attempt to move voters against him. Campaigning is at its heart about winning, but winning at what cost?

To simply blame the campaigners is to miss fundamentally the nature of a political campaign. Those individuals who step beyond the bounds of acceptability should be brought to task. But it is the candidate's job to set the boundaries of campaign behaviour, just as an army offi cer is expected to do for their soldiers. That's not to say a candidate is always responsible for the actions of the people working on their campaign. There will always be rogues. But more often than not, when a campaigner goes too far it's because the candidate set a standard of winning at all costs.

Shane Greer is executive editor of Total Politics