GE2015 minus 18: lies, damned lies, and elections. 

Posted: 19 April 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

For all the attacks on politicians for deliberately misleading the public, it’s painfully obvious that there are times when a government has no real choice but to maintain a poker face and blatantly lie to the public. 

Note that I’m conflating politicians and the government there. I’ll separate them out in a minute, but bear with me, eh? First of these necessary occasions is perforce national security. I’m sure that there have been any number of occasions in the last decade when, say, the Prime Minister on his way to a meeting about a terrorist threat, has seen a journalist and answered “everything’s fine”. I wouldn’t expect them to say anything else. 

Moving away from that, while still on the less physically dangerous but still definite security of the nation, back in the days when a government could devalue its currency, a Chancellor of the Exchequer resigned after assuring everyone that there would be no devaluation. Mr Callaghan never wavered in his denials up until the point when it became necessary to devalue, after which he resigned as a matter of honour, since he’d lied both to the House of Commons and the public at large. And I’m sure that anyone reading could come up with their own scenarios for when it would not only be favourable but necessary to lie to the voters. That’s in government.

When you’re not in government, and especially when you’re fighting an election campaign, though, then it becomes far less clear. Take the current election campaign. I’ve already written about the straw men that abound in this election, but I ignored the biggest lie of all, since I wasnt quite sure of what I thought about it or how  to express it once I did come to a conclusion. Fortunately, Andrew Rawnsley has written a superb piece for the Guardian entitled Hung parliament? Absolutely not. According to the great pretenders. Rawnsley is always good; like the best political columnists, even when I don’t agree with him – which is often – his writings always make me think. And as I have mentioned before, that’s never a bad thing. However, in this piece, he’s spot on.

The opinion polls are uncertain about many things: how bad will the Lib Dems rout be, punished for their willing part in the coalition government? How hard will election night north of the border be for Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy? Will UKIP even hold both of the seats they’ve already got, let alone increase their representation? Oh, the polls don’t indicate certainty in any number of  things. But all of them, all of them, beyond peradventure show that we’re heading for a hung parliament, a parliament in which no single party has a majority. And yet, both the leaders of the two main parties maintain this pretence (to state it mildly) and willingly lie (to state it less kindly) to the electorate that they are campaigning for single party majority government.

Now one could make the case, as it has been made to me, that parties who tell the unvarnished truth don’t win elections, and that you can’t campaign for a hung parliament. Indeed. Campaigning to win is what politicians do, in our or any other democratic system. But to tell the public you’re campaigning for the impossible – which is what the polls have been telling us for years now – is by definition deluded at best and mendacity at less best.

I’m no politician. I’ve no wish to be a politician, and those sighs of relief you sense from every party are real, I assure you. But to campaign for something you and everyone else knows is impossible strikes me as patronising the  electorate. OK, I hear you say, what about any party that doesn’t stand a chance of being in power and having their policies enacted into legislation? What about the candidates that stand against a sitting MP in a safe seat? What’s their point? They’re fair questions.  

I’m still optimistic enough to believe that most people stand for parliament because they want to do good by their fellow examples of humanity. Not everyone who stands for parliament fits that description, but the overwhelming majority do. And that extends to almost all of the people who achieve their wish and get into parliament for the first time. Again, not everyone, but definitely most of them. After they’ve been in parliament a while. of course, you have something to judge them by: their record as an MP. But that’s another entry for another time. Back to the candidates. Some stand, knowing they don’t have a chance, but stand either because they’re party politicians and hope to be selected for a winnable seat next time around. Some stand knowing they have no hope, but they want to get their issues raised locally. Independent candidates who stand under the “Save our Local Hospital” banner, for example. And, similarly, some stand hoping to get their actual preferred candidate to nail his or her colours to the mast, in other words, to ‘keep them honest’. 

While I have my own political preferences as to who does and doesn’t get elected, and I wish some candidates far more luck on the day than I do others, I’ve a certain level of respect for anyone who stands for election, who states their views clearly and waits for the election result with trepidation, eagerness or terror; sometimes all three.

As for parties, well, depending upon the working majority, and don’t forget that Tony Blair’s New Labour’s stonking majorities in 1997 and 2001 of 160+ were the exception, parties sometimes can influence proposed laws as they makes their way through the legislative process. Via the medium of select committees and the committee stages of a bill, smaller parties make their presence felt, often punching well above their weight as regards their actual parliamentary presence. And, as Rawnsley points out, too often forgotten is that parliamentary parties are themselves coalitions, with the Conservative party containing both the europhile Ken Clarke and the almost fanatically eurosceptic William Cash. Labour are the same, with the Blairite Liam Byrne and the wouldn’t piss-on-Blair-if-he-was-on-fire Jeremy Corbyn. Such extremes of each party often share views with other parties in the Commons and such alliances influence the main party’s policy all the time.

As Steve Townsley (again, I recommend you read his comments to this blog; while I don’t often agree, they’re important contributions to debate) has pointed out, our political system does not lend itself well to politicians seeking election telling the truth. Too often, it’s advantageous for the politician to bare-facedly lie to the electorate. Every candidate will tell you that they are their own person, that they owe their party only allegiance, not mindless servitude. And yet, most will blindly follow the party whip once elected, and those who do not are punished by the party machines. Well, I say ‘punished’. It depends on how the elected MP sees their future career. If the MP wants advancement within the hierarchy of government, well, that’s dependent on the Prime Minister. And, strangely enough, Prime Ministers aren’t often inclined to promote those who rebel against the party whip. Of course, if the MP wants instead to have a career as a backbencher, serving on select committees, then sure, obvious and public withholding of favours by the party machine is less a punishment and more a badge of honour.

But either way, it’s rare that our system encourages MPs – or those who wish to become MPs – to tell the truth to their electorate. 

But for the leaders of the two main parties, the only two men who can in fact become Prime Minister to openly campaign by the medium of mendacity… well, it doesn’t bode well for our political system, does it? 

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Comments
  1. It’s a popular cry that politicians lie. Voters do it too. They have also done it for decades.

    Labour Party volunteers of a certain age will remember ‘reading cards’ also known as the ‘Mikardo System’ after Labour MP Ian Mikardo. After world war two, in the era of two party politics, Mikardo devised a system of cards to record voter affiliation during a canvas. Mikardo first tested his cards in Reading – hence the name. The cards were designed to allow canvassers record voter support for Labour or not. By ‘not’ the Conservatives were the alternative.

    This all worked pretty well in many constituencies and many elections. If you were a Labour canvasser up to the first Thatcher Parliament the Reading card was you primary campaign tool. By then Mikardo’s system was understood up to the point that canvassers would put down voters that didn’t positively say Labour as Conservatives. Years of canvassing had taught the experienced people that if a Labour canvasser was on the door of a Labour voter they would almost celebrate the visit and enthusiastically endorse Labour. Lukewarm voters or people who said the ballot was secret and they wouldn’t say were marked down as Conservatives.

    In the era of professional polling this rough and ready canvassing prejudice began to be tested will real independent data.

    So in 1992 the polls got it wrong. Labour didn’t win and all sorts of reasons were proposed. However the pollsters went and looked at what voters told them; http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/faq-dont-knows

    It turns out that Conservative voters didn’t really like admitting they were Conservative. Teresa May’s “nasty party” jibe and Nick Cleggs summary statement that he put ‘heart’ into the coalition Government could be echoed in a public that lies about it’s voting intentions. Certainly post-Thatcher evidence reflects that people want to be associated with left of centre values because they are perceived to be of the heart.

    So voters lie. I would like to believe it isn’t deliberate but rather because they can’t help themselves. So as a Question Time audience on the BBC talks about the NHS an audience member says she would pay more taxes for the NHS. A wonderful loud handclap follows and 34% plus vote for parties that want to cut taxes and not spend any more.

    I don’t accuse politicians of lying in a pejorative way. The voters do it too. The media are also involved. The latter group want to talk about a ‘hung parliament’ at every election as it stokes up viewing figures and makes the election exciting for them as election nerds.

    The politics of election numbers, polls and majorities is not the same as the debate on substance about issues, democracy, accountability and good governance. Elections in the modern era are about the maximisation of votes by political parties to gain power. We would all be better off if we put the idea of democracy on the backburner or at least regard the phrase “democratic election” as an oxymoron.

  2. There are a couple of reasons for standing in no hope seat that were missed above, one of principal, one of practicality.

    The one of principal is standing a candidate so that people who support your party have the choice to. I stood as a paper candidate for council last year, and am again this year. My total contribution to my campaign was to spend a couple of hours going round my neighbours and asking them to sign my nomination papers. I then spent the rest of the campaign trying to help my friend defend their seat. On polling day, I was able to go in and vote for a candidate for the party I support. So did 212 other people (out of the 5,201 who voted)

    The one of practice is that a lot of the mechanics of our political system is based on the number and or share of votes that each party receives. At a minimum the Short money that opposition parties receive for policy development is tied to votes, but it also affects scale of media coverage enforced by OFCOM and I’m sure a variety of other elements. It also impacts the thimgs more softly – It would have been a big story if one of the big three had dropped below 631 GB candidates, or alternatively if UKIP had managed to clear the 7 seat difference to get a full slate. It also indicates growth – UKIP from 558 to 624, Greens from 335 to 573

    (2010 numbers at http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge10/candidates.htm, 2015 at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0At91c3wX1Wu5dFkzTjFrRmJRN3F6ODBTTEs4NGFhcUE#gid=0)

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