Tuesday 20 April 2010

Not in my name

The websites and blogs are brimming today with news of various ways in which various people are trying to attack the Lib Dems - or testing out possible lines of attack.

Here at Next Left we have consistently criticised the Lib Dems where criticism is due: notably their policies for a big income tax giveaway to high earners and to abolish the Child Trust Fund. Lib Dem responses to these criticisms have not been persuasive.

But there's obviously a world of difference between fair-minded criticism and smear.

Unity at Liberal Conspiracy picks up on Cristina Odone's attempt to smear the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris as 'Dr. Death'. The basis for this charge seems to be that Evan is unwilling to make the moral views of the Catholic Church into the law of the land.

And then there is the Labour candidate for Birmingham Hall Green, Roger Godsiff, whose efforts earned him a passing mention on yesterday's Newsnight. Roger homed in on the Lib Dems' proposal to give the vote to criminals. Not content to merely point to the policy and criticise it he decided to publish a leaflet with pictures of various rapists, murderers and paedophiles who would allegedly get the vote under the Lib Dem proposals and - what a neat touch! - added a picture of the Lib Dem candidate thereby visually bracketing the candidate with these criminals.

To which I can only say, as a Labour party member: Not in my name!

Is this really what Labour politics has come to?

Update: as Sunder's comments on this post show, there seems to be a widespread rejection of Roger Godsiff's election leaflet in the Labour party, at both the national and local levels. So the answer to my question, 'Is this what Labour politics has come to?', would seem to be 'No - not in general'. Phew....


Sunder Katwala said...


Yes. Well said.

But, up to a point, as the rhetorical "Is this is what Labour politics has come to?" goes too far, in a number of respects.

The generality of attacks of an over-the-top nature are not coming from Labour, but primarily from the media, and to some extent from the Conservatives (though Cameron is accentuating the positive). Cristina Odone for example does not tell us anything about the Labour party.

Of course Labour can and should challenge the Liberal Democrats on policy issues. The leadership was doing so in careful and measured tones yesterday, in my opinion.

That leaves the Godsiff leaflet. My reaction, as a tweeted last night, was that I was v.unimpressed. But the Labour party HQ stopped and pulled it when they heard about it, so I don't think it can be taken as being condoned by Labour.

I doubt Godsiff can be taken as representative of Labour MPs generally. I can only think of perhaps one other Labour MPs who take such a tough line in calling for immigration curbs. I think is fairly described as a very robust Labour tribalist from a trade union organiser background (I would place him very much on the right of the party, though you may well approve of his rebelling on ID cards, 90 days detention, the 10p tax rate and other more left/liberal rebellions, which shows he is not easily pigeonholed).
The form it takes is very poor indeed, so of course it should not have been put out. More broadly, this is an issue where the UK has been found not to be in compliance with the ECHR, where the government is (foot-draggingly) complying slowly. Perhaps public opinion would oppose that ruling, but it hardly makes for a good election issue.

Sunder Katwala said...

The chair of the Birmingham Fabians, a party member in the constituency, said this:

"And not in the name of #BrumHG #Labour. We are disgusted & devastated. RT @thefabians: Next Left: Not in my name"

@nextleft Not at all - and Godsiff didn't consult any of the local campaign teams in its production- bad practice even for good leaflets!

that second message a reply to me saying:

@thedancingflea Thanks. I agree with you and Stuart White about the leaflet. Not, I think, representative of Lab's approach to LDs.

Stuart White said...

Sunder: many thanks for this. I'll put some of this info in the main text in an update. I'm relieved to hear that that good sense on this is apparently prevailing in the party at large.

Zio Bastone said...

I wonder how common smearing actually is. In Brent Central, for example, election leaflets for which Dawn Butler (a well known London second homer) has recently apologised were sent out, smearing Sarah Teather.

The allegation upon which the smear was based, found to be entirely fictitious by the PCS and by the Electoral Commission, was sent in the name of Shahid Razzaq, a relative of someone who works for Ms Butler and as from an address associated with Ms Butler’s agent, though he denied having sent it.

Zio Bastone said...

I meant, of course, UNcommon.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. I don't know the case. Another question is whether the odds have tilted strongly towards unethical campaigning backfiring (additional transparency; speed of information; increasing awareness of voters) or whether that is too hopeful.

It seems to me that the key distinctions should be (i) owning what you do and not running false flag operations; (ii) scrutiny and negative campaigning being based on evidence, and something you can stand behind as legitimate argument under scrutiny of it.


This was how a group of us tried to define legitimate "negative campaigning" a year ago, in something about political blogs specificially.

"We believe that we can challenge our political opponents without always questioning their integrity. We believe that there are big political arguments to be had between the left and the right of politics, and the left has every reason to be confident about our values and ideas, which have done much to change Britain for the better over the last century and which are in the ascendancy internationally after three decades in which anti-government arguments have often dominated.

We also believe that what is pejoratively called 'negative campaigning' has a legitimate place in politics. Scrutinising the principles, ideas and policies of political opponents is an important part of offering a democratic choice. We should challenge the ideas, claims and sometimes the misrepresentations of our political opponents, just as we would expect them to challenge us. We believe that this is effective when it is done accurately, and that this will become ever more important as the internet makes politics more transparent. So we will point out where there is a mismatch between professed principles and policies, or where the evidence does not back up what is claimed, but we will try not to assume our opponents are in bad faith where we do not have evidence to support that".

Stuart White said...

Zio - well, I am sure that a certain amount of smearing and related dirty tricks goes on a lot, and - say it quietly - sometimes even Lib Dem candidates have even been known to engage in the odd smear. (Just ask Simon Hughes about some of the leaflets his Liberal party campaign put out when he was running against Peter Tatchell in the 1980s...)

But I think people in all parties need to try and contain the baser instincts of their own party.

Stuart White said...

Ooops...that should have read '...Lib Dem candidates have even been known to engage in the odd smear or related dirty tricks.' (In the Tatchell case, I believe the leaflets in question sought to exploit homophobia. The last I heard, Hughes had apologised to Tatchell and Tatchell had graciously accepted the apology.)

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile the Lib Dem leaflets in my area read "Sack your lazy Labour Councillors", and catalogue the failings of the Lib Dem Council. Nice. Their eve of poll last time was a fetching publication called "Labour News".

I see despite scepticism here last night, Brown has signalled the surrender, and Bradshaw has officially run up the white flag. I imagine I shall talk fondly of the Labour Party to my grandchildren in the way my grandparents told me about their days in the ILP.

Zio Bastone said...

The 1983 Bermondsey campaign was indisputably vile. However, the attacks on Peter Tatchell were essentialist, a sneer at what he was, a member of a suspect class, and in that sense very old fashioned. Ms Butler (by contrast) attacked Ms Teather with lies about her behaviour, an expense fiddling ‘hypocrite’, and in circumstances where the boot (more than £66,000 claimed for one of two homes owned in London, equally close to the Commons and a record of expenses claims rejected by the Fees Office) was firmly on the other foot. That is a very different sort of smear, of a type that New Labour has in my view tended to favour over the years and one that has become, I think, more common on all sides as political debate has become less and less philosophically agonistic and more and more about branding.

Negative campaigning, of the sort that Sunder outlines, is entirely respectable in my view. But it is the exception rather than the rule.