Getting beyond “All politicians are liars”

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The most dangerous of political myths in a still functioning democracy is  “They’re all the same”.  It goes hand in hand with “All politicians are liars”. I believe that we have to be explicit in insisting that in our country a small number of our politicians really do tell lies but most do not. There are plenty whose ideas, values and political aims we can disagree with but that does not mean they are liars. Someone’s interpretation of an issue may appear to be false but that is not about telling lies.

There is of course a grey area between truth and deceit. If people are to be equipped to make democratic choices there is inevitably going to be a place for the simplification of some issues. In a representative democracy people make their choices in the ballot box and the people who get elected carry on the debate in more detail. That’s why we pay them and give them really good research facilities.

There is even a limited case to be made for seeing “spin” as a positive so long as there are competing spins. But that is not lying. Tom Barney in the latest Liberator rightly questions the extent to which our campaigning depends on a PR model. We need to clean up our act but we cannot get away from deliberately shaping messages than can communicate clearly and effectively.

Nick Clegg and his colleagues in the 2010 parliament went back on a promise over tuition fees but that is not the same as lying. It was a political judgement whatever we make of the policy. The real lesson from that debacle was not “never make a U-turn”. It was rather do the risk assessment on hitching your party to someone else’s “pledge” – in this case the  National Union of Students.

I suspect that one of the best resources for coping with the accusation of all being liars is a reasonably visible track record. Another more intangible counterweight is testimony from organisations outside political parties. The more thoughtful sections of the media, faith communities and much of the voluntary sector are by and large willing to say that most politicians are not liars. My own Christian denomination, the Methodist Church, has no problem in seeing politics as a vocation.

We can live with the suspicion that some of our politicians may be lying. We should not tolerate obvious lies from people who simply (and lazily) make denials without supporting evidence. In a difficult election campaign most Lib Dems would have had no regrets about Jo Swinson’s assertions about Johnson’s lies.

Ours is not simply a time for the hard slog of political campaigning from the ground up. It is also a time to defend the building blocks of politics itself. Calling out the lies emanating from round the Cabinet table will require constant vigilance over the next few years. However there is an even harder task in exposing those actions of the Government which, semi-hidden by a host of distractions, move us further towards becoming a more authoritarian state. Sometimes deeds as well as words simply do not ring true.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • I do not think that most people analyse their language in this way. They express a feeling that they are not being dealt with in a straightforward way. My belief is that this is the way that the human brain works, but there are many theories about that.
    It is significant that when politicians seem to be prepared to take the time to explain things, to listen to problems and so on they are better regarded.

  • Fair comment Tom – and true to experience. Sorry about the predictive being over-helpful with your name. As you will have gathered I found the Liberator piece illuminating.

  • Thank you Geoff for your comment. However there is a real Tom Barney, and I do not claim to be him.

  • Francis Jakeman 29th Feb '20 - 10:54am

    Thank you Geoff for your reflections. I find it so difficult to receive any new communication with an open mind. Inevitably, or so it seems, my reaction to it is coloured by the judgements I’ve come to on previous communications that I’ve received from that source. You will say that is a lazy approach, and you’ll be right; but being able to judge each new action or communication on its own merits and on the evidence available to back it up requires more emotional effort and research than I can often muster! That’s why our system of representative democracy is so valuable. If we can develop trust in a particular person, or group, by examining their words and actions over time; and see first, whether the two match, and secondly whether we agree with their values, then we can leave them to do the detailed hard work as you describe. So, let’s pray for our elected representatives, and assume as far as the evidence suggests, that they are in the job for the right reasons!

  • @Clive Trussell

    While it’s not technically a lie – as you say, I have no reason to believe that anyone making the pledge intended to break it at the time they made it – it nevertheless is not seen as trustworthy. Likewise, politicians make true but highly incomplete statements all the time, misleading the public without ever technically lying. Also not behaviour the public approves of when they find out the omitted information.

    Voluntarily joining a coalition with the Conservative party is hardly the same as having your car break down, either. Perhaps a better analogy would be if you say you’re going to meet someone, then another friend offers to take you to the pub? You intended to pick them up when you said you would, the pub sounded better on the day, you didn’t technically lie to the person now waiting in the rain, and therefore they shouldn’t be at all angry with you – that’s just being ideological, and look at all the benefits we gained from being in the pub!

    Don’t worry, I’m sure “it wasn’t technically a lie” and “it could have been worse” will do better in the Lib Dem’s 2024 campaign than they did in 2015, though.

  • Charles Smith 29th Feb '20 - 11:23am

    The leading Brexiteer made the extraordinary call at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual meeting of the American right. Mr Farage added Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership was a “huge contributory factor to Brexit getting done” and suggested Republicans could learn from Labour’s move to the hard-left.

  • Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems promised change in 2010. The literature the TV ads the whole campaign based on doing things differently..CHANGE. The voters have them the opportunity and then look what happened. The legacy of those years haunts the party the decline that followed the mockery the indifference was all down to not keeping promises…debate all you want about political realities but voters have a different opinion and telling them they are wrong won’t help. Clegg Alexander etc they are your legacy.

  • Peter Hirst 29th Feb '20 - 3:56pm

    It should be possible to devise a system where it does not pay for those in public life to deliberately mislead the public. It means better regulation of the media and other outlets so there is mandatory redress. If media outlets can be forced to publicly recount errors and misleading accounts, the climate for these statements would be much reduced.

  • I would agree that most politicians are not liars, however most will spin or orbfuscate or , as they get closer to the seat of power, use phrases like collective responsibility, refusing to criticise the leadership for fear of damaging careers. In this respect they are with few exceptions ‘ all the same ‘ . There are some very few politicians across all parties that I truly admire. It is perhaps unsurprising that, for the most part, those individuals either have. O real prospect of a cabinet job, or my have only gained my admiration having rejoined the back benches. I do not expect a politician with ambition to be completely transparent with their personal opiniion and would be pleased if any government delivered on fifty percent of their manifesto. For complete candid views look to a retired politician.

  • Sadly a known serial liar is in No10 with an 80 majority.

  • As was Nick Clegg.

  • Without the 80 majority of course 🙂

  • Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a well-meant miscalculation as opposed to a lie. That doesn’t make it better. MPs went out of their way to sign the NUS pledge. There was provision for MPs to abstain from that vote without damaging the coalition. Those who voted in support of the changes did so knowing the party was running on a platform of ‘No more broken promises’. So, a clear message was made to students that despite going out of the way to sign a pledge of support, students were of a lower priority compared with other issues (and I have serious doubts that policy was deliverable even with a majority). Young people are already disenfranchised from the political process. This didn’t help.

    Sure, in a coalition you don’t get to honour every promise you make, but you can at least not go the other way and triple the tuition fees. Or, if you have to break an important promise, you fight it every step of the way and make it very clear what you’re doing that’s better. The fact they could have been even worse isn’t really a defence – the difference between 12k and 9k doesn’t matter to most mid-range earners who can’t clear their debt anyway due to the interest rate hikes.

    I’m not saying all that to fight yesterday’s battles – it’s important to learn from the coalition (realistically it’s the most likely way LD will get in govt again) and move on. But it is one of those cases where something can almost be worse than a lie. I also think that reducing tuition fees criticism down to people saying LDs/Clegg ‘lied’ is also reductive in and of itself. Trust can be harmed without something being a lie.

  • Clive Trussell – “(2) The country, apparently, had “no money left”.” – you know, Barack Obama also inherited a tanking economy and a giant budget deficit (as bad as British fiscal condition in 2010) from Bush. Yet, he still managed to introduce a huge stimulus package and and then gradually cut deficit without actively rolling over the poor and the middle-class.

  • Tim Morrison 2nd Mar '20 - 9:49pm

    It may help if parties penalised MPs who the courts had proven to be liars and stopped accepting money from arms dealers.

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