‘Email-gate’: changing culture requires taking responsibility
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.