Rebecca Long-Bailey has vowed that the Labour Party would compete “toe-to-toe” against the Prime Minister’s controversial adviser Dominic Cummings if she becomes leader.
The shadow business secretary said she wants to establish a media rebuttal unit and put a greater emphasis on digital campaigning to take on Mr Cummings, Boris Johnson’s right-hand man, at the next election.
She said Labour had been “nowhere near” the Conservative Party when competing for votes at the December poll.
When leading the campaign operation at Vote Leave during the referendum, Mr Cummings was heralded for successfully targeting Eurosceptic voters through online and social media advertising.
Mr Johnson credits him with penning the “Get Brexit done” slogan that helped usher in his Tory landslide victory.
Speaking at a leadership hustings in Brighton, Ms Long-Bailey said Labour would need to become “ruthless” if it was to beat Mr Cummings and the Tories next time round.
She said: “We have to be more ruthless. We need to have a rebuttal unit in our party that fights back at those smears (against the party leader) immediately.
“We also need to have a digital campaigning team that is increased far beyond the current capacity so we can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Dominic Cummings.
“We were nowhere near in this election campaign. They were targeting demographics – your hobbies, your income groups – and we were just putting out nice memes and videos, and that’s not good enough.
“We have got to be ruthless, forensic and we have got to fight back.”
Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, told supporters that outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn faced worse “vilification” in the press than any Labour leader before him.
He warned the party must not adopt Mr Cummings’ strategy of attacking the UK’s free press or else risk a polarised media model similar to that seen in the US.
Since the election, and with Mr Cummings by his side in Number 10, the PM has opened a consultation into decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee, which makes up the majority of the BBC’s income.
And journalists walked out of a No. 10 briefing earlier this month after it became apparent that some reporters had been excluded.
Sir Keir said: “Part of Cummings’ approach is to attack independent journalism and to try and push us down an American model that will make it 10 times worse.
“This is a culture war. It is very important we diversify the press, we call out the vilification, but that we stand up for an independent and free press.
“Otherwise, Dominic Cummings will take us down the American model and it will be 10 times worse by the time we get to the next election.”
Lisa Nandy, the only backbencher left in the race for the top job, said she wanted to see a social media tax to help provide local news outlets with long-term funding.
The Wigan MP also said she would like to “mutualise” the BBC so the public could have a greater say over its running.
“I want to see us mutualise the BBC, not because I hate the BBC but because I believe in the licence fee and I believe it must be far more accountable to the public and the people who fund the BBC,” she said.
“It would be far less open to manipulation from this right-wing Tory government.”
The sensational resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office’s most senior civil servant who quit amid a bullying row with Home Secretary Priti Patel, was not addressed during the 90-minute debate.
Voting has started in the three-candidate leadership contest, with a winner due to be announced on April 4.