Playing the Person

Our country faces many serious challenges including the leading of economic recovery and the real threats to our national security.  It was therefore stunning to find that some of the most feverish activity coming out of Number 10 was directed against senior Conservative politicians.  Here we have some policy advisors, paid for by the taxpayer, apparently engaged in party political activity of the worst kind.  The national interest and the party political interest are deliberately made one and the same.  There is the implicit, arrogant and self-serving argument that it is somehow in the national interest for the Labour Party to remain in power.

The emails so painstakingly planned by a policy advisor contained scurrilous innuendo rather than some important truth.  They were a fine example of playing the person rather than the ball.  All politicians expect to be held to account and to be brought to action in robust debate.  This expectation is a world apart from using public funds to initiate personal attacks using false information.  When a political party stoops so low, it suggests that their policy arguments are remarkably weak or else they could rely upon them.

Politicians should have a thick skin and shrinking violets might feel ill-at-ease.  Nevertheless, Conservative politicians, as the intended victims of the proposed smear campaign, were right to react with outrage on this occasion.  Commendably they have been joined by a number of senior Labour politicians who recognise that their political party should want to earn the right to govern through political argument and debate without sinking into the gutter.

Gordon Brown expresses regret but what does that mean?  No doubt, he is sorry for any offence caused but would it not be a good idea to say so?  There are problems with just expressing regret as some people can suspect that the real concern is that of being found out.  Regret does not draw a line under this shabby event.  Only an unconditional apology can begin to do that.

Politics is supposed to allow for forthright debate without the whole matter becoming personal.  We bring the political arena into disrepute if we move too far from that principle.  There are further dangerous stages that we can go through.  Sadly in parts of the world, we see political differences expressed in form of violence, some of it extreme.  All of this makes the case for debate to be centred on the issues without resort to personal dirty tricks. 
Even the structured format of debate in a parliament or council chamber can have its pitfalls.  Only one person can have the last word but some people always want that accolade and can diminish themselves in the attempt.  Then there are the needling and very forthright contributions which are pointless unless the contributor has the emotional intelligence to realise that they will usually get the same back and might not be able to handle it.  On the other hand, debate can be analysed too much and prevent the spontaneity that enriches our political life. 



Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council

15th April 2009