After email-gate, a last chance to get real?

April 14, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics 

I ought to have lots to say about ‘email-gate’ as it is being called. After all I write a blog, I used to work in Number Ten and I was once the subject of a nasty smear allegedly circulated by Damian McBride (that I had leaked a letter from Adair Turner to Downing Street). But what is there to say? In a prescient article some weeks ago the Guardian’s Martin Kettle developed the ‘good Gordon – bad Gordon’ thesis that is now being picked up by every other commentator. I’m not sure whether GB’s bad side is that much worse than anyone else’s but it feels so because of his carefully cultivated image as a man of unblemished high mindedness.

The game of politics is like any other sport. In a perfect world we would win playing beautifully, but if it takes a last minute dive in the opponents’ area – ‘well, after all, we did deserve to win really’. Who knows whether Red Rag really had been abandoned but if it was it would have been for tactical rather than ethical reasons. The contents of the McBride e-mails were nasty and puerile but the political classes are no less prone to inappropriate and childish humour than any other in-group. But it’s best not to get caught.

The problem for the country is not the damage to Brown’s reputation or to Labour’s (more senior ministers will no doubt now be wondering how they might decouple the latter from the former) but to politics as a whole. Friday sees the release of the apparently hilarious ‘In the Loop’, the film based on the characters from ‘In the Thick of It’. This will confirm the impression that politics is a game played by unprincipled, talentless, weirdos.

To say our country (which means us) faces big issues is an understatement. From the economic crisis to climate change, from civil liberties to pensions, there are huge choices to be made. There is a documented tendency in political journalism over the last two decades to focus ever more on the political game at the expense of exploring the issues behind the contest for power. Away from the froth there are important debates emerging between the centre left and right, not just on economic policy but on the role of the state, family policy and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Many other issues – most obviously climate change – are being suppressed as neither of the main parties wants to confront us with the full implications of an adequate response.

Somehow, all of us who want the next election to be a chance to open up rather than close down the issues, who want the choice we focus on to be about policy options not brand propositions, need to find ways of making this happen. Maybe we had to get to the absolute nadir before we could demand a different frame for our political choices.

This is Labour’s scandal. The answer lies not in handwritten letters or ministers scuttling round studios with the latest ‘line to take’ but in an authentic attempt by the Government to make the next twelve months of politics about policy choices. To do this would involve taking risks, sticking to them even when it meant telling difficult truths. It would mean sending a completely different kind of message through the political system – one that people would initially assume was just a tactic.

It isn’t likely, especially in an administration whose political motto should be ‘all tactics, no strategy’, but in as much as it often takes desperation to inspire genuine change, who knows, we could end up being grateful for email-gate.



  • joe

    I can’t help thinking that some politicians are being a tad over-sensitive (in a cartoonish ‘ooooh matron’ kind of way) and are using this as a way to generate political publicity during the (presumably fairly slow news) holiday. But then I’ve not seen the allegations, maybe they somewhat more than I assume.

    I’m no fan of party politics. The most amusing soundbite of the weekend was one spin-doctor who was trying to justify his existence claiming that the special adviser role was to ensure enacted policies matched the commitments in the party’s manifesto. In that case, maybe the problem is that there are too few of these people…

  • Ellen

    Joe. Or perhaps it’s that there aren’t enough commitments in party manifestos for special advisors to oversee. A variation on Matthew’s key theme. And the devil makes work for idle hands.

  • TimHood

    ‘There is a documented tendency in political journalism over the last two decades to focus ever more on the political game at the expense of exploring the issues behind the contest for power.’

    Depressingly but very true. And perhaps even more depressing is the fact that blogging and other forms of social media- often hailed as the path to improved political discourse- may actually be contributing to this focus on the political game at the expense of issues.

    What’s particularly sad is that with all the innovation going on in the area of digital citizen engagement, the project being most discussed at the top levels of Downing Street and the Labour Party is Red Rag- a Labour version of Guido Fawkes’ minority interest gossip column.

    The Guido genre can be funny if you like that kind of thing but it is hardly going to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to vote either Labour or Conservative in scores of marginals. And that is pretty much all that is needed to win an election in the UK, sadly.

    A savvier party would be investing in hyper-local, digitally enabled networks and communities in the marginals, rather than entertaining the Westminster Village with unpleasant rumours.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Tim – 100% agree. It’s not just about technology. I spent many futile years trying to persuade Labour leaders that the Party had to stop being simply a vehicle for those who want to be elected and start being an agent for progressive change itself. It is a tragic reality for Labour that with Conservatives demanding their candidates set up social projects in every seat and the LibDems always being good at pavement politics Labour is now (despite the constituency work of its best MPs) arguably the least socially progressive grassroots organisation of the major parties.

  • Joan Keating

    I do wonder about the culture of all this. I spent 1988 to 92 doing a PhD in a large university politics department. My first degree wasn’t in politics and it was a bit of a shock as a 25 year old woman to turn up in an environment that was so very laddish (and I grew up in a hard drinking convivial inner London Irish Catholic family!) I know that those same young men will, like me, have grown up (I wouldn’t have predicted that I would have spent the last eleven years as a housewife and mother of three) but there was a way of operating – involving in particular lots of gossip – that could well have survived if similarly formed people stuck together. I occasionally google those people I’ve remembered and yes they did do fast stream, work for think tanks etc. What is is important to remember though is that those same people were very serious about wanting to make the world a better place and should be applauded and valued for that.

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Joan

      Thanks for this. And thanks also for recognising that however politicians and their ad visors end up nearly all of them are originally inspired by a desire to make the world a better place. It’s the system and the game that is the problem not (usually) the people



  • Tom Paine

    I am struck by two things.

    Firstly, that the email and allegations are so cruel.

    It’s like watching a married couple fighting in public. Yet the Labour Party’s first instinct is to rush Ed Milliband round TV studios telling the world that a line should now be drawn. This is unconvincing and inept.

    Draper has tried to construct public persona as a therapist and yet he is entertained by the idea of exploiting someone’s supposed mental health problems. It’s squalid. Since psychotherapists aren’t registered in the UK he can’t be struck off, but if that isn’t a breach of professional ethics I don’t know what is. (He has past form, the previous low point – for me – being his suggestion that people unconvinced by Brown’s leadership are suffering from a mass sociogenic illness).

    What is it with otherwise intelligent New Labour people – Brownites, Blairites and whoever else – accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being mentally ill?

    While it’s reminiscent of Stalin, I’m sure it has more to do with the still-prevailing “perception is reality” theory of Public Relations. Convince yourself that you can control others’ perception, and you can convince yourself that you control reality as well. Doesn’t make it true, though.

    Often, private behaviour of the kind revealed by these emails – abusive and controlling – is only moderated once it becomes public. No 10 needs to take this on board as a moment of clarity. I’m sure it won’t, though.

    The instinct to attempt to control what people think by controlling the narrative of news coverage belongs in a world of 4 TV channels and red plastic glasses.

    Which is my second point: in its handling of this, Downing Street comes across as an institution that’s out of touch. It fits in to a context, of public institutions with old habits going against the grain of how news coverage is changing.

    People expect news media to be more personal, emotional and about them. (For all kinds of complex reasons, including that people can select sources of coverage more than ever before). That expectation is itself not necessarily good for democracy, but it is what’s driving the business model of mainstream journalism.

    The Met sends spokesmen (always men) round the media ahead of a contentious policing action, reassuring the populace in a calm voice that their human rights are being upheld. Right before covering up their identification numbers and smacking protesters about with truncheons.

    That dissonance is deeply troubling. In line with your observations elsewhere about meta-cognition… it feels wrong. Aside from the ethics and politics, that’s the bit that sticks in the mind. The sense that is made of the story afterward is less important than the simple fact that there is a dissonance.

    I know what you mean about in-crowds gossiping, but there is an expectation that people who run the government ought to behave with honour, be worthy of admiration. This is why Obama is President. Even Republican aides I know in DC wanted him to win, to restore their sense of dignity in their jobs and careers.

    Related to this is the fact that news sticks around now. We can go back as citizens and do our own fact checking. We can reacquaint ourselves with government spin doctor’s past form.

    No matter how many times I hear people in politics and the media say it’s so, it’s not true that the public have short memories. The Iraq inquiry will prove that.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Tom. Really interesting and thoughtful comment. I like your point about dissonance. I make a point in my blog today about people seeing the inauthenticity of the current Brown position which appears simultanesously to be – McBride was a lone maverick and the whole culture of politics needs to change. I probably dont agree about Iraq – huge mistakes made but no evidence of lying or secret agendas – but we’ll see when the (4th) inquirey reports.



  • Kate

    Great post.
    ‘Somehow, all of us who want the next election to be a chance to open up rather than close down the issues, who want the choice we focus on to be about policy options not brand propositions, need to find ways of making this happen.’
    Yes we do. How do we make it clear to the McPoisons of this world that we’re not really interested in David Cameron’s sexual health, anyway? Someone enlighten me, please? It’s getting desperate…

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Kate

      Thanks for the comment. It comes down to whether Labour and the political class merely make a tactical retreat from this kind of politics or recognise the need for cultural change. I address this in my blog today.



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