‘Email-gate': changing culture requires taking responsibility

April 15, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics 

With the promise to post two blogs today – the second about some fascinating new American research on altruism and social capital – I ask my reader for patience as I return to ‘email-gate’…..

I find from The Guardian this morning that I am part of a coordinated Blairite backlash against Downing Street dirty tricks. It’s news to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have alluded to the time I was the hapless victim of an alleged McBride briefing. I certainly don’t want to add my voice to the pious chorus coming from people like Frank Field (who was, of course, innocent of the constant briefing against Harriet Harman when the two ministers were at war over welfare reform in Blair’s first administration).

There is a subculture of off-colour humour and irresponsible gossip in politics just as there is in most professions or workplaces. In Westminster it is fed by certain types of special advisors, journalists and politicians; the kind who actually enjoy hanging around the bars of Westminster Palace late at night. When I first got involved in national politics I was one of these people, mistaking cynicism for sophistication, gossip for influence. The problem with McBride was that he put this kind of stuff into a Downing Street email and seemed seriously to think that, despite his position and the source of his wages, he could be involved in establishing and feeding an ‘independent’ scurrilous website.

My criticism of the Brown operation is less about its morals than its effectiveness; as I said yesterday it can seem to be all tactics, no strategy. Today there is anotehr example. Political strategy, which was my job after the 2005 election is all about thinking through consequences: ‘if we do this, the opposition will do that’, ‘if we say this, won’t we be asked that?’ etc. I provoked a major debate in Downing Street in the summer of 2006 about whether Tony Blair should name a date for his departure. I was in favour, others strongly against. We all had to argue through a variety of scenarios in front of each other and ultimately the Boss – who, in the end, decided against my position. But does this kind of searching self-critical debate happen in Downing Street today?

I wonder because Children’s Minister Ed Balls was forced this morning to make an obviously contradictory argument. On the one hand, he stuck to the line that no one had any idea either about the McBride email or about attack briefings from the Brown office now or at any time in the past. On the other hand, he took the high road arguing that this was a chance to reform the whole of our political culture.

He’s right about the seocnd part.  I was drawn into commenting on this affair becuase it is an opportunity  for Labour in particular, and the political class in general, to give up an outdated, failing and discredited poltical culture  in favour of something which might genuinely engage the populace in the major dilemmas the country faces.  But Balls can’t simultaneously assert that McBride was an isolated maverick and that the problem is the system. When a position doesn’t add up like this people sense it is inauthentic, even if they can’t precisely explain why.

The reason Gordon Brown should go further than expressing regret is that he can only have credibility in arguing for change if he is willing to recognise that he and his generation of politicians and advisors (and yes that includes me) have been complicit in a political culture that is now broken. What’s best for Labour right now is what’s best for the country. This is to level with people about the kind of challenges we face and the impossibility of those being properly addressed, let alone overcome, unless new types of leadership are combined with a willingness by people themselves to be engaged, self sufficient, altruistic citizens.

It is still possible for good to come out of the McBride affair but only if Labour’s leaders accept – as all leaders must – that taking responsibility is the necessary precursor to real cultural change.



  • Steve

    What I find interesting is that the advisers inside Number 10 don’t seem to be able to see the benefit of closing these ‘slip ups’ down quickly with a proper, honest sounding appology. It was the same at the end of the last Tory government, they seem to get more and more arrogant and macho perhaps because they are having to deal with a lot of internal pressure and argument. The focus seems inward in all of this and no one is saying to them “look outside , the public don’t like this”.

    At least ‘In the loop’ is out on Thursday hopefully I will still be able to laugh about the spinners…..

  • cjcjc

    Matthew – any chance of concentrating more on the RSA and less on popping up on TV to talk about party politics?

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Cjcj

      Fair comment. In my defence I would say, first, that the case for a better quality of political and policy debate is a legitimate one for the RSA to make. Second, although I do work long hours even I don’t expect to be in the office at 10.40 (the time I was on Newsnight) so I can assure you my media appearances didn’t distract me from other RSA duties. But I know I have to walk a careful line here so thanks for the feedback



  • Chas

    Do you remember a story a couple of months ago about a video in which Prince Harry made some slightly off-colour remark about an Asian colleague on a home-made video, shot while on active service? I do not recall his exact words, but it was absolutely clear that the comment was entirely in jest and was not made to cause offence, and nor would it have done so. In the same video, for example, Harry is shown pretending to speak to the Queen on his mobile phone and asking about her corgies. He also fields a question from a soldier off-camera who asks him “Are your pubes ginger too?”. He nonchalently replied, “Yes.”

    Immediately we saw hoards of screeching politicians (all, as far as I can remember, from the left) lining up to condemn Prince Harry and claiming that “there is no place for remarks like that, blah, blah, blah”.

    Now you casually tell us what we have always assumed, but would in the past have been strenuously denied, concerning the sanctimonious creeps who rule over us, that “There is a subculture of off-colour humour and irresponsible gossip in politics just as there is in most professions or workplaces.”

    What is so utterly contemptable is the intergalactic level of hypocricy among Labour politicians (it probably applies to others as well, but we are discussing a scandal deep inside the Brown bunker here and I am not going to play Gordon Brown’s game of saying that the McBride affair has damaged “politics”. It has not; it has damaged Gordon Brown. Fatally)

    What honest, intelligent people should have said about Prince Harry’s comment at the time was “It’s not very nice and we don’t encourage it, but that is simply the way soldiers behave and Prince Harry is a soldier. They live in a high pressure environment which includes armed combat, killing and injuring and being killed and injured. Humour in such an environment is unsurprisingly robust. No offence was intended, and none taken.” Instead we are fed a sickening tirade of sanctimonious condemnation.

    I think in these “everything goes” days when “what we do in our private lives…. blah blah blah”, almost nothing shocks us. We know that most members of the cabinet lie every time they open their mouths and we are now aware that they steal everything that is not nailed down, but what I am still genuinely astonished by is the ocean-going, weapons-grade hypocricy of these people. I cannot begin to tell how much I despise them.

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Chas

      I might not agree with you on some things but, actually, I do accept your core point. As I understand it Prince Harry’s colleagues made it explicitly clear that they didn’t find what he said offensive. In that way it is an example of the kind of in-house humour I was discussing. The Prince faced the same problem as McBride which is that it is one thing to say silly or even offensive things in jest to friends it’s another to have to defend them in public. Having said which, I suspect a lot more people were willing to give the wealthy Prince the benefit of the doubt than the now unemployed (and potentially unemployable) McBride

      Thanks for the comment and, if you do comment again, I promise to listen even if you choose not to be quite so forthright!


  • carl allen

    It would be great if you could discourse on the politics of the Third Sector, the personalities of major players as might be discerned from their actions rather than just their words, their inability to place sector progress and well-being above organisational self-interest, that the politics of consultation has replaced professional analysis of issues and …

    After all, the Third Sector has its own e-mail gates that are no less fascinating than in the political sector or financial sector. And perhaps more fascinating because of what the Third Sector proclaims its values to be and the battles fought between those who adhere to the values and those who do not.

    The RSA would, I think, be unable to host the numbers of people wanting to attend an event focusing on the history and current happenings in Third Sector politics covering the last 20 years.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Carl I agree. My attitude to the third sector is like Orwell”s to the British left. He was said to be like a season ticket holder for his home town team standing loyally on the home terraces rain or shine complaining at the top of his voice. Feel free to give me examples…..

  • http://www.freestylegames.com James Horn

    Keep going with your comments on politics, Matthew.

    What is refreshing about this blog is that it covers a wide range of areas, from political commentary (from someone who has been in the loop) through to more abstract ponderings on social change.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks James – kind and encouraging words

  • carl allen

    The decision of Capacitybuilders not to further fund the Third Sector Leadership Centre and the subsequent information surrounding that decision is not unique by way of past events.

    An analysis of these events indicates that when it comes to what some organisations regard as their relative positioning in the sector, then their working together actions for progress of the sector falls by the wayside if their relative positioning might change. Thus the Leadership Centre fell because of crabs in the barrel culture.

    This is disheartening to many small charities who depend on these very visible leaders to … “The test of a first rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in your mind at the same time and still retain your capacity to function. You must, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and still be determined to make them otherwise”. F. Scott Fitzgerald

    The opposed idea being where organisational self-interest clashes with sector progress i.e. progress in that the leadership centre would have been a platform which the entire sector supports and uses.

    Now this is not to say that such organisations do not cooperate. They do cooperate on some matters but perhaps never when their organisational positioning may be adversely affected.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Carl. I think you brought this to my attention before. And I agree that it does no one any favours when it looks like NCVO and ACEVO are at daggers drawn. For what it’s worth I think good people on both sides are trying to overcome the inherent dangers of competition and duplication. Like the Fitzgerald quote. Reminds me of Gramsci’s ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’

  • carl allen

    Hello Matthew. Since history keeps repeating itself, we are at a moment in UK Third Sector history comparable to this present moment in financial regulatory history as regards financial bubbles. But there is no similar action to review the regulation of what is acceptable behaviour and what should be the penalties for unacceptable behaviour which is a pattern. Perhaps the time has come when historical behaviour should be one criteria in commissioning for Third Sector activities and those that do not meet this criteria should be time banned. It might be part of the compact refresh perhaps, since the compact is about working together.

  • Duncan Lawie FRSA

    I’m afraid that “popping up on Newsnight” on these kinds of matters reinforces a continuing public image as a former loyal member of the former prime minister’s Downing Street.

    That seems to me to conflict with the non-aligned position which I think the RSA needs to be effective.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Duncan

      The point I have been consistently trying to get across is the need for a new type of politics – focused on the big issues we face not the machinations of the Westminster village. This is something I have argued often on RSA platforms. So I am not saying anything that I haven’t said before and that doesn’t chime with RSA valuea; i.e. the important of grown up substantive debate. I always try to get broadcasters to use my current status rather than past one but I dont always succeed. My media profile does generate useful contacts and opportunities for the RSA. Having said all of which, I know it is a difficult balancing act and i am always grateful to be told when people think I am getting it wrong

      Have a good weekend


  • Duncan Lawie FRSA


    I completely agree with you on the need for a new type of politics – and am rather despairing about what progress we can make when the party machines control so much of what happens at a national level. I am therefore concerned that the RSA can be used as a venue for policy presentation (in much the same way the press would turn up for speeches that Blair made in front of – but not actually to – primary school students). However, I do recognise the value for the RSA of being seen as a real contributor to national discussion, and that politicians can have interesting and valuable contributions to “our” discussions.

    So, I do recognise that your last job can help us in this one, although it seems, at times, the media are only interested in your point of view for who you used to be.

    [ It seems I’ve got more time than usual this afternoon. I’ll disappear back into my rabbit hole shortly ]


    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Duncan fair comment. I really want all our coverage to be about the stuff we do but we still have some way to go before we are generating enough good quality material for this to be the case. Have a good weekend.

      PS What do you call a man who lives down a rabbit hole