Friday, June 27, 2008

A dodgy dossier of sneers and smears

The nasty party modern, compassionate Conservatives have produced a dossier on Gordon Brown’s year as PM. It is, of course, highly critical, and nobody could deny that at least some of it hits the mark. But a lot of it is purest dross, often based on the seriously dishonest use of quotes.

A few choice nuggets rather than a full fisking. For instance:

While many countries are experiencing an economic slowdown, Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has warned that the UK economy is “more exposed” than the US economy to financial instability (The Daily Telegraph, 18 September 2007).

It’s awfully good of them to put the reference in. It lets you look up what Greenspan actually said:

Britain is more exposed than we are in that regard - in the sense that you have a good deal more adjustable-rate mortgages. Britain has done awfully well. If you look back, it’s been a big surprise. Nonetheless, it’s probably marginally more subject to credit problems than we are.

Which casts things in a rather different light. Also, when asked whether the UK had as serious a prospect of recession as the US, he said:

No, because one of the things that Gordon Brown has been pressing for for quite a long time is flexibility. Unlike even the US, Britain accepts foreign corporations coming in, buying up British assets. It may be one of the most competitive economies in the world.

Exhibit two:

Last June, Gordon Brown announced a new policy of providing “British jobs for British workers”, which he reiterated in his September Labour Conference speech (24 September 2007). But the proposals would be illegal under EU law.

Alas, no. The more intelligent among you may have noticed that “British jobs for British workers” is a verbless soundbite and not a policy. His conference speech remarks were clearly about training and skills rather than restricting the working rights of foreigners. And what he said last June was actually “British workers for… British jobs”. More precisely:

It is time to train British workers for the British jobs that will be available over the coming few years and to make sure that people who are inactive and unemployed are able to get the new jobs on offer in our country.

Third up:

Pensioner poverty higher than in 1997. The number of pensioners living on below 60 per cent of the median income measured before housing costs… is 100,000 higher than in 1997 (DWP, Households Below Average Income, June 2008).

In reality, the number of pensioners below the poverty line so defined is either unchanged or 100,000 lower depending on whether they mean 1996/97 or 1997/98 when they say “1997” (hat tip). But it’s more seriously misleading than that.

This is the number of pensioners below the poverty line. And there are now six or seven hundred thousand more pensioners than there were back then, which means that the proportion of pensioners below this line is significantly down.

And a fourth:

On the day before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he said it was “frankly a good thing” that newspapers were briefed on key announcements before Parliament (The Independent, 27 June 2007).

You know the routine by now. What he said, when asked about policies being trailed in the papers, was:

If you think that's happened in the past, I'm sorry. But I think now we live in times when there is more external consultation on the formation of policy, and it's inevitable that there will be some kind of public discussion about policy issues before anyone stands up and makes a statement to Parliament. Frankly, I think that's a good thing. We can't have a return to a purdah system, where the Government refuses to consult anyone on the development of its policies.

But the Tory dossier covers a lot of ground, generally in scattershot fashion, and it certainly scores some legit hits (although some of those are pretty minor). There are also points that are purely differences of opinion, some that are irrelevant and some where the Tories could face similar criticism.

Then, though, it goes into tawdry attack mode.

There’s the ‘year in quotes’ section, consisting of people saying bad things about Brown (except for the ones from Jack Straw and Alan Johnson, which are saying utterly different things from what the dossier suggests). A fair few of them are anonymous, including that old favourite, “psychological flaws”. Nice. Classy.

Next up is ‘A year in pictures’, which reaches the intellectual heights you’d expect. Among the reasons that Brown has been a bad PM is that he “was pictured with his trouser leg tucked into his sock”. Worse, he hit a tennis ball with a “weird style and facial expression”. He was also “pictured outside Downing Street, with his hair apparently on fire”. Worst of all, on one occasion, Brown “looked as if he’d been targeted by aliens from planet orange”. I’m not making this up.

The following section is ‘A year of gaffes, tragedy and farce’, which is a mixture of unsubstantiated gossip culled second- and third-hand from the press, a couple of verbal slips, taking the piss out of his accent, Madame Tussauds not making a waxwork of him, a daft Hazel Blears idea (which went nowhere), an opinion poll, and one of the lyrics in a song he likes.

Then it gets even better. The ‘Jonah Brown’ section explains that Brown is a jinx: his presence is associated with sporting defeats, bad weather and minor injuries among those around him. Actually, only one of these three claims is made. Can you guess which? Does it even matter?

And that’s that. Oh yes, except that David Cameron describes the document as “robust”. Mmm.

It’s perfectly possible to deliver a firm and reasoned argument that Brown has failed in his first year, being critical of his personal qualities as well as his policies. You’d expect the Tories to be quite good at doing such a job. But this ain’t it. It’s cheap, flimsy and nasty.


Unknown said...

From what I can see it's eminently fiskable, not to mention nauseating.

Liam Murray said...

"It’s cheap, flimsy and nasty."

I wouldn't dissent from much of that Tom but would also just add 'it's politics' - in tone and technique it's no different to several Labour docs c.1997.

The key thing is 'what does a sober, measured & non-partisan assesment look like?'

By the mid-90's the settled view (even from many on the right) was 'the game's up, they've lost the plot and the others deserve a shot' - the Guardian piece you highlight is the beginnings of a similar mood emerging among Labour supporters.

What Brown & supporters really need is the ability to fisk and reject those assesments rather than Tory mailshots - unfortunately that doesn't appear to be the case...

Unknown said...

Cassilis, I know that politics pre-1997 is pretty much pre-internet, which makes it harder to find and present examples, but I'd be genuinely interested to see Labour Party publications pre-1997 which are parallel to this in "tone and technique".

I'm not convinced (though I'm perfectly prepared to be convinced) that it ever sank to this level, but since you say that it's "no different to several Labour docs c.1997" I'd be interested to know which ones you have in mind.

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, my memory's similarly lacking on that one. I'm certain that there was so-called 'light-hearted knockabout' stuff that lacked intellectual or evidential adequacy in attacking the Tories, but I'm not sure there was the sustained personal trashing that we see nowadays.

Of course there was Blair's "weak, weak, weak" against Major, but the people we really hated - Howard and Lilley spring most obviously to mind - weren't the focus of campaigning.

I also recall from those days the Blair 'demon eyes' posters, and the utterly atrocious one of Blair as a puppet on Helmut Kohl's knee, reading "Don't send a boy to do a man's job".

Labour's recent 'Tory toff' attacks are I think as unpleasant as they are ineffective, but they're really not in that league at all.

Liam Murray said...

As you say Tom difficult to prove and I'm happy to admit I'm going by memory & hunch so I may have got it wrong - I'm minded to recall the sheer ridicule that was piled on Major though, more often than not out of all proportion to his (admittedly genuine) failings.

Also, as I blogged on earlier this year Labour happily exploited largely personal sleaze and individual indiscretions and used them to tar a whole political tradition because it made electoral sense to do so.

There may be something to your charge that things have reached a new low Tom and I was one of the many millions who voted Labour in 1997 (and 01/05). But, as you pointed out in that thread I linked to above, these things tend to move in one direction and the Tory doc is just how campaigning goes these days. If the Tories do win and Labour are back in opposition the idea that they'd forego that sort of thing when their time came round again is silly.

Anyway - the substantive issue is that even reasoned and non-partisan assessments now look bleak for Brown. If he wants to retain office it's those he needs to refute...

Unknown said...

I think the other point is that there's a distinction between criticism/ridicule which comes from third party sources (i.e. the media and, now blogosphere, which of course wasn't there in 1997) and criticism/ridicule which is explicitly published by the main opposition party. While Major was indeed ridiculed, and Labour was happy to feed a media narrative of Tory ineptitude/sleaze, I don't think there was any equivalent of this document. What the Tories are doing is taking Guido Fawkes stuff (some of it directly lifted, as Guido has been happy to highlight) and publishing it under the Conservative Party label. So we have official Tory endorsement of gossip, "Tee hee, his trousers are tucked into his sock" and "Labour jinxes football results". Did Labour ever actually do that? I honestly don't think so.

I don't know whether they'd forgo it if they were back in opposition. But if they do, there's no moral high ground left for the Tories to occupy, and sometimes retaining it can be tactically useful.

Liam Murray said...

I agree it's moved on to a different level now - it's just an accident of timing that Tories are the prime exponents of that at the moment. I'm pretty confident that Labour won't forego it when their time comes because, as we both agree, they pushed the limits of acceptability when they were last in opposition (e.g. feeding that 'media narrative of Tory ineptitude/sleaze')

The limits have moved but the opposition party plays just inside them - essentially the same as 1997.

Tom said...

"The limits have moved but the opposition party plays just inside them - essentially the same as 1997."

For "plays just inside" read "defines". Don't you think?

I mean, what would count as "beyond the limits"? What, in principle, could you imagine an opposition doing which would be uncontroversially seen as beyond the pale and which would not be seen as having set a precedent, a new bar for acceptability?

Liam Murray said...

Perhaps but the point holds - all that separates the Tories now and Labour then is time and circumstance (and method), not ethics, decency or any other such highbrow consideration that lefties might want to believe.

In opposition Labour 'redefined' those limits and pushed some pretty nasty stuff about Major etc. At the time I can recall angst and revulsion in some sections of the press and it was around then the mythology about Campbell & Mandy started to grow - they were 'masters' in this new art of campagning (learned largely at the feet of Clinton staffers).

All the Tories are doing now with Hilton & Co. is the modern, web2.0 version of the same thing.

You're right that this is a hard one to nail down because the mid-90's were more-or-less pre-internet but entertaining though your fisk is I don't think it stands up as demonstrative proof that the Tories are somehow fundamentally nasty or below the belt in terms of how they campaign.