“When they go low, we go high”

The Leader’s Debate on Wednesday was a miserable affair. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the whole hour.

It wasn’t so much what they said, which was pretty predictable, but how they said it.  The tone was one of bad tempered school boys itching for a fight. Insults were exchanged – sometimes quite subtly, but they still landed. In fact Sunak and Starmer lived up to everyone’s stereotype of opposing politicians, substituting personal attacks for carefully argued criticism. It wasn’t helped by the chairing which seemed to egg on the sparring.

One response that we hear on the doorstep to this way of doing politics is “Why don’t they all work together to solve the problems?”. Of course that is possible, as the work of many unsung Parliamentary committees demonstrate, but for major policy areas and budget setting the scrutiny role of the opposition is absolutely essential. Indeed, the presence of an effective opposition is a benchmark for democracy. But effective opposition does not have to include personal animosity.

The layout of the House of Commons doesn’t help. It is designed for adversarial debate, with the opponents only kept apart by the statutory two sword lengths between them. The architecture encourages personal attacks on the people sitting opposite, and indeed the structure of PMQs is designed to work in that very space.

Last week I attended the funeral for a former Labour councillor. In fact I had chosen her to be my Deputy when I was Mayor, and we had developed a good friendship. At the reception afterwards I met up with former Labour councillors and activists, and a former Tory Mayor, and we all greeted each other warmly. It is perfectly possible to have respect for members of other parties and to recognise that we share some fundamental values about community and democracy. This can, and did, translate into lively debates in the Council Chamber, but conducted in a courteous manner. Passion and compassion are not incompatible.

And then we come to election campaigning. When parties are pitching themselves to gain the support of their voters it is important that they address policies held by other parties. That, of course, is very different from having a go at the candidates themselves.

Some of you will recognise an LDV theme here. We ask commenters to “Play the ball, not the (wo)man”.

I live in the Kingston & Surbiton constituency and a four page leaflet has been delivered around my area that consists of nothing but nasty ad hominem attacks on Ed Davey. It bears no party branding and we could only see that it was from the Conservatives by reading the imprint.

I have personally intervened in local campaigns whenever anyone on our side has drafted negative attack leaflets.  Not only does such material outrage my sense of decency, but it is also asking for responses in kind, setting us all off on a downward spiral.

So is it possible to do robust politics, with effective scrutiny, without resorting to personal attacks? Is it possible to use only positive campaigning techniques during an election?

I think it is, and I am encouraged by Michelle Obama’s mantra: “When they go low, we go high”. And she should know.



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Jason Connor 7th Jun '24 - 6:06pm

    Or it could be we ask commentators to play the ball, not the person as not everyone identifies as male or female. I thought Julie did a great job chairing the debate, On several occasions she reminded the two leaders not to talk over each other. What I also liked was how she unpicked the questions asked by the audience so they were answered in full in so far as was possible by both politicians. I very much agree on the polemic of negative campaigning.

  • Mary Fulton 7th Jun '24 - 7:18pm

    @Jason Connor
    In the context of a sporting analogy (in a sport in which men and women compete in separate competitions), it is not offensive to use the phrase “play the ball, not the (wo)man”. While is is true that not everyone identifies as either male or female, they can only participate competitively if they do so within one of the two sex based categories. The phrase is just reflecting that reality.

  • Martin Gray 8th Jun '24 - 6:02am

    Historically by far the biggest comment on the doorstep is ‘your all the same , nothing will change’ …. Obviously voters have proven to be right in that respect…Never more so than this GE, as as parties offer up mediocrity in abundance …Let’s all be nice is great – but fundamentally nothing will change …The next parliament will dish out a few more breadcrumbs for those that are struggling – served up by a bunch of bland sloganeering professional politicians oozeing centrist drivel…
    Voters looking for real substantive change might as well not bother and sit this one out ..

  • @Martin Gray. I’m sorry you feel so depressed about politics and politicians. Most of our readers will think differently – while else are they out door knocking and delivering, especially in our target seats?

    I can’t agree with you though. When we were in coalition we achieved 75% of our manifesto, including key changes like the triple lock on pensions (Steve Webb), equal marriage (Lynne Featherstone), investment in renewables (Ed Davey). Change is possible, though whether that will actually happen under Starmer is an open question. But if we can edge towards being the official opposition then things might start happening.

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Jun '24 - 8:24am

    Might it clarify perceptions of our partial democracy and even start to make it more genuine if the main stream media were more analytical and sharper in what they present?

    Might the net result of the coalition have been significant socio-economic harm to our country?

    Why did we promote austerity/neoliberalism which results in some 25% of our children being permanently underfed?

  • Jenny Barnes 8th Jun '24 - 10:27am

    “The layout of the House of Commons doesn’t help. ”
    No, it doesn’t. And as the Houses of Parliament are in need of extremely expensive refurbishment, surely it would be better to just build something new and more suitable for today’s politics rather than something out of the 18th C?

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Jun '24 - 10:46am

    @Jenny Barnes
    The likes of Rees-Mogg wouldn’t allow it!

  • Jenny Barnes 8th Jun '24 - 11:24am

    “Rees-Mogg wouldn’t allow it!”
    I’m looking forward to (among others ) a “Rees-Mogg moment” in the forthcoming GE 🙂

  • Paul Barker 8th Jun '24 - 11:33am

    This is is the most important Election in Britain for a Century, ie since the introduction of Democracy. The gap between the main Parties is bigger than at any time since the 1930s & there is a real possibility of Our oldest Party, The Conservatives going down to irrelevance.
    When Voters talk about Parties being “all the same” I think they are expressing confusion & Fear. For the vast majority who don’t follow politics closely those are reasonable feelings. The rise of Reform frightens me & I have been following Politics obsessively for six decades.

  • @ Paul Barker “This is is the most important Election in Britain for a Century, i.e. since the introduction of Democracy”.

    I’m sorry, but no, it’s not, Mr. Barker. It’s nothing like the elections of 1923 and 1924 (the first Labour Government and the demise of the Liberal Party as a party of Government)…. nor as important as 1945 heralding the upsurge of the Welfare State and the NHS.

    In reality it’s one of most most depressing of the 23 elections in my memory.

  • Martin Gray 8th Jun '24 - 12:17pm

    @Paul B…’The gap between the main Parties is bigger than at any time since the 1930s’…
    Really ! ….Both have declared to sticking to the fiscal rules . That’s ultra tight spending commitments and plans – with the tax take already very high.. Relying on growth under those rules looks incredibly difficult…
    Nothing hardly separates the main parties – it’ll be more of the same …Only the labour manifesto in 2017 came anywhere near substantive change – whats been dished up in this campaign – meet the new boss – same as the old one …

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Jun '24 - 12:49pm

    Is there a political party opposing austerity/neoliberalism, with its obvious harms to most in society, for whom we might vote?

  • Cracking result at Torbay Wellswood on Thursday. Just another 5/6 votes. But brilliant in terms of our potential targeting for July 4.

  • @Steve T – you’re asking on a forum called Liberal Democrat Voice which party we could vote for… Ummm….. 😂

  • Martin Gray 8th Jun '24 - 7:01pm

    @Steve T …All Progressive parties have adopted globalization for the greater good…
    Sadly, they’ve failed to realise the damage it’s done to post industrial towns/regions across the UK & Europe …As the middle classes are enriched by it – those at the bottom are serving that with low pay insecure work … Their progressive politics is a metropolitan campus mentality outlook with zero understanding of how those towns have been by effected by negatively by immigration & the loss of industries..

  • Mary Reid, If you thought the two leader ‘debate’ was bad the multi party affair was much worse..Mordaunt seemed to think that it was HER show and interrupted everyone else.

    For the two person affair..Why not use a microphone cut-out so only one person can speak at a time.. As for the multi party ‘bash’ just throw raw meat in at half time…

  • Ex-LD Leeds 9th Jun '24 - 1:03pm

    Michelle Obama was on the losing side on that election though.~

    There are at times too many nice people in the Lib Dems who think that because they are nice the world will reward that.

    “When we were in coalition we achieved 75% of our manifesto, including…. equal marriage (Lynne Featherstone),” is a bit historical revisionary. Equal marriage wasn’t in the 2010 manifesto.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Jun '24 - 2:24pm

    “There are at times too many nice people in the Lib Dems who think that because they are nice the world will reward that.”

    Are you implying we should all be nasty?

  • Ex-LD Leeds 9th Jun '24 - 5:08pm

    “Are you implying we should all be nasty?”

    There is something of an art to this. You don’t want to be perceived by the *general* electorate as nasty (qv Theresa May). But you do need a hard edge to things and not be timid.

    “Someone came along and said that liberal means “soft on crime.” Soft on drugs. Soft on communism. Soft on defense. And we’re gonna tax you back to the stone age because people shouldn’t have to go to work if they don’t want to. And instead of saying, ‘Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave-it-to-Beaver-trip-back-to-the-fifties!’ we cowered in the corner and said, ‘Please. Don’t. Hurt. Me.’ – Bruno Gianelli

  • There is certainly something to be said for demonstrating basic decorum, but there is a limit where one must politely disengage. If I am debating a communist or a fascist for example, either of those people, if in power, will do irreparable damage to me, my family, and the country. That is why they proudly stand for such parties. In the face of such evil, it is prudent to refuse to give them the time of day, and proudly declare so.

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