Labour frontbencher Emily Thornberry has defended a party attack advert claiming Rishi Sunak does not think child sex abusers should go to prison.
The shadow attorney general acknowledged there has been a lot of criticism, including that the social media message is “racist”, but she said the critics are “wrong”.
Figures on Labour’s left have joined Conservatives in expressing unease over the campaign ad while shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell declined to endorse it.
The row centres on a tweet in which Labour is pitching itself as “the party of law and order”.
Alongside a photo of the Prime Minister, an image reads: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”
Ms Thornberry told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions: “I heard a lot of people criticising it, and a lot of people who I like and respect criticising it and saying they felt very uncomfortable about it. Some people said that they thought it was racist.
“I have to say, I think they’re wrong. I just disagree with that. I think the truth is we do need to have a debate in this country, and Rishi Sunak is the Prime Minister and he is responsible for a broken justice system.”
Asked if she genuinely thinks Mr Sunak held these views, Ms Thornberry responded: “If he believes that everyone responsible for child abuse should get a custodial sentence, why are so many not getting a custodial sentence?
“He is the Prime Minister and that is a legitimate question for the Opposition to ask.”
Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson said she was “pretty disgusted” by the campaign, saying: “This is not an attack ad my party would use.”
The under-fire Twitter post highlights Labour analysis of Ministry of Justice data and says that under the Tories “4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under-16 served no prison time”.
Labour has declined to delete the ad and has instead continued with its approach, posting a similar message accusing Mr Sunak of not wanting to jail “dangerous gunmen”.
Judges and magistrates, rather than the prime minister of the day, are responsible for handing out sentences.
The figures Labour highlighted cover the period since 2010, five years before Mr Sunak entered Parliament. He did not become Prime Minister until October last year.
The party continued with the attack ads, with the latest claiming Mr Sunak does not want thieves to be punished, citing figures suggesting only 180 of the 4,500 thefts a day will result in charges.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell has urged his party to climb down, saying: “This is not the sort of politics a Labour Party, confident of its own values and preparing to govern, should be engaged in.
“I say to the people who have taken the decision to publish this ad, please withdraw it. We, the Labour Party, are better than this.”