Why suddenly telling the truth is damaging politics

It’s better that Labour figures are starting to tell the truth in public about the Brown-Blair infighting years than if they were continuing to claim they’d always got along fine, government had never been hindered and Blair loved the idea of Brown becoming Prime Minister.

However, telling the truth is, I fear, coming at a considerable cost to the reputation of politics. Because we’ve now got a succession of people saying, in effect, ‘Don’t bother with what I told the public at the time. Of course that was nonsense. The truth actually was the opposite’. That fits right with the very worst stereotypes people have of politicians who’ll say anything and can’t be trusted.

If you look back at some of the previous denials that were made, they read utterly bizarrely now. Take this book review by Stephen Pollard of Jim Naughtie’s 2001 book The Rivals in which he criticises Naughtie for making a blunder by saying that Alastair Campbell keeps a diary:

There are too many factual errors, such as repeating the notion that Campbell keeps a diary (“my pension”, as he supposedly calls it). After Peter Oborne made the same claim in his biography, Campbell went ballistic and flatly denied keeping any sort of diary. Unless he is a barefaced liar, the story is wrong.

Life has moved on rather, hasn’t it?

The moral of the story? Tell the truth in the first place. But the frustrating legacy for people still active in politics is that they’ll be left to tackle the consequences as a cohort of politicians exit the stage, contradicting as they go so much of what they said before.

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18 Comments

  • John Fraser 19th Jul '10 - 9:00pm

    Perhaps we with glass houses should not throw stones Mark.

    Vince cable has more or less admitted that out campaign against the Tory VAt bombshell was just a bit of spin.

    Our absolute promise not to raise tuition fees seems not worth the paper its written on.

    Our campaign strategy to phase in cuts humanely and gradually got binned the day after the general election .

    Ofcourse telling the truth isn’t damaging to politics people would have respected a properly costed manifesto which NONE of the parties had…. but when basic pledges made by your own party are later found just to be gimmics and spin. this seems far more important to me that the Labour tittle tattle of who said what to who .

  • That was funny. I’m reading on a phone and was scrolling up from earlier articles on the front page, so I read your second paragraph first. I automatically assumed you were talking about the Lib Dems till I read up to the first paragraph and realised my mistake.

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Jul '10 - 9:49pm

    Vince cable has more or less admitted that out campaign against the Tory VAt bombshell was just a bit of spin.

    Nowhere is that actually a lie. The national campaign never fell into the trap of saying “VAT must not be raised”, it just said “Tories want to raise VAT”. Which turned out to be completely true.

    Our absolute promise not to raise tuition fees seems not worth the paper its written on.

    I don’t see anybody raising tuition fees. Looks like that one has been kept, so far as I can see.

    Our campaign strategy to phase in cuts humanely and gradually got binned the day after the general election .

    The only lie here is that this was ever a campaign strategy. Cable was very consistent and very stubborn with interviewers about not being bullied into saying this. The message all along was: the timing of cuts will be based on economics.

  • “it just said “Tories want to raise VAT”. Which turned out to be completely true.”
    That made me laugh. I admire your chutzpah.

    Does anyone really care that Alistair Campbell lied about keeping a diary in 2001? Does anyone really care that the Blair/Brown relationship wasn’t a Cameron/Clegg style love match? Neither are high up on my list of reasons for becoming disenchanted with New Labour.

    Far more damaging to democracy is the sort of dishonesty we saw around policy from all three major parties in the general election.

  • I always find it weird people (or I should rather say the press) seemed to attack politicians that admit having been wrong, calling it flip-flopping, etc.
    I’d rather they admitted being wrong, meaning that they’ve re-assessed, and learned from their mistakes, than stubbornly maintain being right when they know they weren’t and it was obvious to everyone else.
    I’ll give a lot more respect to a politician doing that, whatever their side. I’m sure the coalition will make mistakes (probably already has), but everyone would, they’re humans after all. Where they will keep or lose my trust is how they fess up and react to those.

    Labour hasn’t admitted to anything yet though; neither on Iraq, the deficit (yes there was the crisis, but they had failed to save before it, and compounded the problem through policies that made it worse in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and left us less able to recover) or even Blair-Brown (see the reaction of the Labour leadership contenders to Mandelson’s ‘revelations’)

  • @ John Fraser

    Was going to write much the same thing. I think deception in electoral politics is so ingrained that you won’t find any party, including the Liberal Democrats, who can come out better than most. Right now, we Lib Dems like to bash Labour as pathological liars, and that’s simply because they’ve been in power longer than we have. After five years of coalition, I think we won’t be much different.

    PS. It will be no achievement if all we can say is that we didn’t lie AS MUCH as Labour did.

  • gramsci's eyes 20th Jul '10 - 6:11am

    “The moral of the story? Tell the truth in the first place”

    “To make cuts now would be foolhardy and dangerous”. Uriah Cable – a week before the election.

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Jul '10 - 11:06am

    “However, telling the truth is, I fear, coming at a considerable cost to the reputation of politics. Because we’ve now got a succession of people saying, in effect…”

    Instead of paraphrasing unnamed people, can you actually give us some quotes?

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Jul '10 - 11:08am

    Andrew: “The national campaign never fell into the trap of saying ‘VAT must not be raised’…”

    You really don’t get it. It’s the very fact that politicians should consider it a “trap” to be straight with the public that makes them look so bad. Not to mention the tendency of political types to defend the indefensible.

    When Clegg stood in front of the now-infamous “Tory VAT bombshell” poster and said :-

    “If you want your taxes to rise: vote Labour or Conservative. If you want your taxes to fall: choose the Liberal Democrats.”

    What message do you think he was trying to give the voters? That Lib Dems would happily raise VAT after the election?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 20th Jul '10 - 12:48pm

    Perhaps in the interest of having to reveal the truth at a later moment when it all falls apart those LibDems in Government could tell us now about there disagreements with the rushed and unthought through proposals on Education, Health and the Big Society. Otherwise we shall have no alternative but to assume that there are no disagreements or infighting.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 20th Jul '10 - 12:50pm

    Should be in the interest of not having to reveal the truth ……………..

    And their not there

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Jul '10 - 2:28pm

    toryboysnevergrowup: “Perhaps in the interest of having to reveal the truth at a later moment when it all falls apart those LibDems in Government could tell us now about there disagreements…”

    Well, in another thread (the one about cuts) we’re told that Lib Dem ministers are unquestionably disagreeing with government policy “behind closed doors”. This is portrayed as being in some way virtuous.

    That said, Mark unquestionably has a good point about Labour being in denial about the extent to which in-fighting damaged the government’s ability to function properly under Brown.

  • Oh Mark. Boo Hoo.

    You won’t print my posts. Nasty pasty man says nasty, hurtful things about Nick.

    How terribly Liberal of you.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Jul '10 - 10:45pm

    “If you want your taxes to rise: vote Labour or Conservative. If you want your taxes to fall: choose the Liberal Democrats.”

    What message do you think he was trying to give the voters? That Lib Dems would happily raise VAT after the election?

    I think he was talking about increasing the income tax threshold. Oh, hey.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Jul '10 - 10:49am

    Andrew: “I think he was talking about increasing the income tax threshold”

    In the context of a speech about VAT, made while standing in front of the “Tory VAT bombshell” poster, I doubt it.

    We’ll see a lot more of that poster in 2015…

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