The Rochester by-election was somewhat overshadowed by this ill-advised tweet by the former shadow Attorney-General Emily Thornberry. In an instant, the media narrative changed from the Conservative loss to UKIP, to instead questioning if the Labour Party had lost touch with its traditional base, and was in danger of losing their support. While the narrative has largely focused on Labour, I would like to widen the conversation to a more fundamental point about modern politics – a complete lack of courtesy.
If you were to watch this video on youtube, you would be astonished. As the present day commentator observes, it contains the incredible sight of three politicians being polite and courteous to each other. As the presenter Robin Day observed in the feature, it is remarkable to consider that in 1979 Parliament was able to defeat the government on a vote of no-confidence, and do so with the minimum of rancour. Politics is always going to be a nasty and messy business, but I am convinced that there has been a shift in my own lifetime in the way politics is conducted. I would summarise the shift in this way: where in the past a politician would attack an opponent’s principles, today they would attack the person of the opponent.
The case of Emily Thornberry illustrates this. For years Labour made the tactical mistake of labelling the Conservatives as an out-of-touch privileged elite. The message they were trying to communicate was, by inference, that the Labour Party was the only party in touch with ordinary voters and their needs. But they achieved this not by attacking policies, but attacking people. We are not talking here about a person’s character or competence, two issues on which assuredly people of all professions must be held to account. I mean that the inference is made that because a person has a certain background, or stands on a particular issue, they are by definition a bad person. With so many of Labour’s Parliamentarians now coming from a more middle-class background, that fateful characterisation is now hurting them by association.
Another example that is worth referring to is the Scottish Independence Referendum. So determined were Labour (and, to be fair, the other parties) to get rid of the Tories in 1997 that every effort was made to discredit the Tories in Scotland as the ‘English’ party. Unfortunately for Labour, that sort of rhetoric has stuck, and with it the associate that the English and Westminster stand synonymous with the kind of Thatcherite policies Scotland largely rejected and resented – not least the Poll Tax. So when Labour expected to roll out their troops to secure the Union, they discovered to their shock that the voters had been listening – and associated the Union with the very demon image that they had conjured up to destroy the Tories in Scotland.
In actual fact, it was a Telegraph article by Dan Hodges that prompted me to write this piece – noting the failure of sections of the left to condemn a truly horrible tweet as part of a campaign against the Prime Minister. Hodges makes his case so well I will not repeat it here, but I agree wholeheartedly with his underlying sentiment – just because you are right, or in the right, does not excuse you to behave whatever way you like.
One of the values that informs my actions for life in general, and politics in particular, is the words of Jesus Christ to: “Do to others what you would have them do you.” For me, that means recognising my own human frailty – even with good intentions, and the best provision in the world, I am still going to make mistakes. It means recognising that politics exists not because we disagree about the good we seek for mankind, but because we disagree how to achieve that good. In short – it means accepting that sometimes I am going to be wrong, and that when a political opponent is wrong it doesn’t necessarily mean that their motives are wrong too.
This is not a challenge simply for the political left. The political right may be less susceptible, holding to the view that mankind is by nature flawed, rather than flawed due to their environment. That said there is a challenge for both – for the left to accept that everyone, including themselves, is fallible; and for the right, to recognise that however fallible mankind is, we’re capable of being better than that. We can start doing that, on every side of every debate, by bringing back some basic courtesy to our political discourse.