Naiveté is a weakness in all walks of life but in politics, it’s deadly

by Rob Marchant

Major political events which blow all other news out of the water, such as the death of Margaret Thatcher, tend to do two things. First, they make us take a step back and take stock, to ponder the grand historical sweep of things; and second, they give us a little time to do so, as the normal scheme of things is largely suspended.

So far, Miliband is having a “good war”: his Thatcher tribute speech was widely thought to be very good and, in any event, the fact that his opponents cut taxes for the well-off a fortnight ago is surely helping his approval ratings. His party is still solidly ahead of the government, although arguably still more down to the latter’s failure than Labour’s conspicuous success.

But politics is about people. About personalities. As we do the stocktaking, we now know much more about Miliband and his leadership style than we did back in 2010. As critical friends, do we not have the right – or rather, the obligation – to comment, if we think that there are weaknesses in the approach? We do.

Last week, various leftists were justifying their rapacious criticisms of Thatcher by the “two wrongs make a right” technique: recalling equally harsh words spoken by Tories on the death of Michael Foot, that same year as Miliband’s accession.

Michael Foot is fondly remembered within the Labour movement as a decent and honest man. His battle with Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s symbolised the clash of two very different types of politics and styles of leadership. The outcome of this battle was shattering for the Labour movement: three election defeats, a generation out of power and country remade in Margaret Thatcher’s image.

The occasion of her death and accompanying reflection have prompted much comparison between then and now; not least about our leaders, then and now.

Let’s be clear: Miliband is emphatically not Michael Foot, however much the Tories would like him to be. He is far more media-savvy; he is way to the right, the politics of Foot having long been marginalised within Labour; and he does not wear a donkey-jacket. He rather comes across as the suit-wearing opposite of the quintessential lefty radical, and that is something to be thankful for.

But there is one trait which the current Labour leadership shares with Foot: and it is the periodic display of a frustrating naiveté. Now, it is not as extreme a case, granted. But there is undoubtedly naiveté of a more modern, 21st century variety.

How else can you explain the belief that, if Labour stands still and commands the electorate imperiously, Canute-like, we will get elected by the centre ground moving towards us rather than in the time-honoured fashion of things being the other way around? That normal service is suspended in British politics, we are no longer in a state of “pendulum politics” and that you must “push the pendulum”, i.e. mould people to your own views rather than you to theirs?

Or that Britain’s nuclear deterrent, a sine qua non of electoral success for the last sixty years, would not radically harm Labour’s electoral chances, rightly or wrongly, if downscaling were proposed?

Or that, in the name of “a party of all the talents”, it is perfectly natural to invite someone widely supposed to be from a far-left, entryist grouping into the leader’s political inner sanctum?

Or that, as Labour Uncut reported on Monday, it is acceptable to calmly subcontract the selection of election candidates to a group of union officials with a stated aim of narrowing the field to those candidates whose political views chime with their own.

Or that Labour could have fallen into an Osborne-laid trap on the issue of benefits not once but twice in the space of four months; and only after the second time furiously backpedalling within days, when it realised it was firmly planted on the wrong side of public opinion?

All these events paint a picture of a leadership seeing its views as simply “what is right”; happily blind to predictable, avoidable attacks from the opposition and the right-wing press; wilfully blind, too, to manipulations being carried out, overtly or covertly, by people who may not have the party’s electoral success as their overriding priority.

Yes, a little positivity and self-belief are vital in politics: you must have enough strength of character to visualise yourself running the country, something which very few of us can suspend disbelief long enough to do. The audacity of hope, and all that, and welcome. It’s important, that essential stubbornness, to believe that what you are doing is right, to ignore the naysayers.

But there is a fine line between that and something else; a tipping over into a dangerous trajectory,  one which starts with overconfidence in the rightness of one’s beliefs; passes through the groupthink born of advisers telling one what one wants to hear; and can end ultimately in glorious, disastrous self-delusion.

We really need to be able to say, with confidence, which side of that fine line we are currently on.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at the Centre Left

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14 Responses to “Naiveté is a weakness in all walks of life but in politics, it’s deadly”

  1. Mark Seddon says:

    Rob Marchant recycles Charles Moore’s disgusting slur that the late Labour leader, Michael Foot ‘received money from the KGB’.
    Michael Foot successfully sued Rupert Murdoch as the proprietor of the Sunday Times, the newspaper that carried the claim – and won.
    When Moore wrote this he knew that as Michael Foot had just died, he could not libel the dead. It was yellow journalism of the worst kind.
    I am amazed that you [LabourList] have allowed this in to print, and suggest you remove it as soon as possible and with an apology to the Foot family

  2. BenM says:

    It’s funny, but when I look around me at

    – a flailing economy with no growth
    – rising unemployment,
    – a deficit that refuses to go down
    – ballooning national debt
    – real incomes slashed
    – ropey part time work lauded as mannas from heaven
    – public services on their knees
    – productivity through the floor
    – rebalancing totally abandoned
    – housing debt bubbles refusing to be desperately reflated
    – single, isolated positive economic data points lauded as signs of green shoots

    and so on, it is to the weird, woolly post May 2010 rightwing consensus I look for examples of naivite and ideology trumping all common sense.

  3. paul barker says:

    As an article on this site pointed out a few months ago, Labour does not have a solid lead in the polls – simply taking historical polling as a guide your current lead would suggest that the Tories would be slightly ahead on Election day. That historical approach cant, of course take account of UKIP, currently averaging 13%, “votes” taken mostly from The Conservatives. We can safely say that UKIP wont get 13% in 2015, or even half that thus giving the Tories even more votes.
    Labour are living in a fantasy world & will suffer a series of very nasty shocks over the next 2 years.

  4. e says:

    Now why is the “pendulum” in question being seen here as representing an electorate which would be pushed? Why is it not seen as representing new ideas and new thinking which warrants pushing? Could it be because some are happy enough with yesterday’s politics? (Even while it is so clearly failing ‘us’) If you see only naivety, recognise no alternatives, why not go the whole hog and advocate voting Tory, or indeed Libdem?

  5. swatantra says:

    This article only reinforces my doubts about whether Ed is the right Leader for us.
    Its naiviete in a dog eat dog world. Politics is a pretty cut throat business, especially the way the Tories play it, and we have to be ready and give back as much as they sling at us. And it’s right to bring it up again 2 years before this Parliament finishes.
    Don’t believe what these opinion polls tell you.

  6. Ex-Labour says:

    What a good article. I’ve been saying on here for many months on various blog pieces that Labour need direction, solutions and policies. Finally in recent days past Labour politicians have also made the very same point. Of course there have been hoots of derision and anti-Blairite rants, but unfortunately many Labour supporters agree (at least the ones I speak with).

    There has been some thought provoking pieces written on similar lines this week from Dan Hodges, Peter Dominiczak plus many others, who raise the same concerns and point out the same frailties. Ed Miliband has got himself and Labour on the wrong side of the debate and more importantly public opinion when it comes to welfare, immigration etc.

    Conviciton politics if fine, but must be tempered with a sense of self and some humility. Knowing when you are wrong is part of this. For any politician standing Canute-like saying the opposite of public opinion is either niavete, self delusion or arrogance.

    Telling the public I’m right and you are wrong is a receipe for disaster.

  7. John Foot says:

    Rob Marchant has repeated a disgusting smear about Michael Foot which was only repeated by Charles Moore after Michael’s death (so that he couldn’t sue). Do some research. Michael was a well-known anti-Stalinist from the 1940s onwards. His favourite author was Ignazio Silone (look him up). Shame on you.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @MarkSeddon: it would be nice, Mark, if you could forget for a moment that your paid role for Tower Hamlets seems to involve trying to write unpleasant things about me, in order to please your boss, who I fear does not like me for some reason, and stick to some facts, we might get somewhere. I, for the record, am unpaid: I write what I think. I have no axe to grind.

    Here I have merely referenced an article by Charles Moore, a former newspaper editor and I would say fairly respectable journalist, although such things are invariably subjective. I might add that, as far as I know, there was no PCC complaint to the 2010 article, or at least not one I can find in their database. If there was any such correction or upheld complaint published, I have not found it, but by all means pass any such to me and I would be happy to reflect it in the piece.

    My reference, which took up all of two paragraphs in the above piece, which was mostly about Ed Miliband rather than Foot, and reflecting the fact that I believe the Moore piece was a legitimate comeback on what was a complicated case.

    In the end I rather admire Foot, but I see his weaknesses, too. I do not believe that in any way Michael Foot consciously would have dreamed of doing anything consciously disloyal to his country (and neither did Moore). Indeed, I have been at pains to point out that I do not believe Michael Foot was anything but a decent politician who was hopelessly naive.

    But neither do I believe that Charles Moore and Gordievsky were entirely wrong about everything they said, either. That is just my opinion. I should also note that, to my knowledge, Gordievsky was never sued over his book, only the Sunday Times over their piece. The book is still available.

    Finally, you are demanding redress on a mere reference to someone else’s article which was published three years ago, referencing a libel case of 18 years ago and original events of approximately sixty years ago, if my arithmetic serves me well. We are surely now in the hands of the historians, who may agree or disagree about Foot, like they do about every other public figure. That is their right.

    I appreciate that you were a supporter of Foot, and that you may not like the Moore’s criticism. However, sixty years after the alleged events in question, I merely wonder if you might not have something better to do?

    @PaulBarker: Indeed (actually I think it was my piece on polling you are talking about). The current poll lead would indicate a small win for the Tories based on historical trends.

    @Swatantra: quite.

    @Ex-Labour: yes, it seems also we are not even being conviction politicians either – rather, dipping a toe in the water, seeing public opinion predictably going against, and then changing tack.

  9. Robert says:

    Maybe you are right and the Conservatives will win the next General Election or we will have another Lib-Con coalition. At least, however, I will have a party to vote for. Quite frankly, the Labour Party would not be getting my vote if it had supported the 1% rise in benefits.

  10. Danny says:

    One of these Conservative “traps” that Miliband naively wandered towards, would that be the one that it quickly transpired that the public were in favour of? That making some of the poorest in society even poorer might actually be the wrong thing to do?

    There was nothing naive in our party’s opposition to what was a nasty piece of legislation that will harm people whose lives the Tory front bench will never understand nor care about.

    As for the appointment of Simon Fletcher, given the fact that 13 years of New Labour has left us economically impotent and in a prolonged period of austerity that is hurting the poorest the most, plucking talent from the left side of our party’s broad spectrum is a good thing. The status quo will not work and any further move to the right from an already Tory-lite New Labour position would see us in touching distance of Mr Farage.

    You might not like the fact that the Labour is the political home of the left, but you have to tolerate it, just as people like me have to suffer sharing a party with Tony Blair’s Progress pawns and their tiresome defence of Labour’s 13 year record in government. Yes, some good was done, but by and large there was little improvement in the poorest communities in Britain and its two greatest legacies are probably an economic crisis and an illegal war.

    At the end of the day Rob, there should come a time when you have to question why the majority of people who find that your articles and blogs strike and chord and who approve of your opinions are not people who campaign and vote for Labour.

  11. Ian Stewart says:

    Rob, I am sure you know that we have our differences over policy and attitude, but that we both favour open honest debate. I enjoy your articles, yet this time I think you had made a mistake over repeating the allegations made about Micheal Foot for a number of reasons, to whit:
    “agent of influence” – a phrase used by spooks when they need to produce something, anything to justify their budget to their bosses, as in “We invited X, Y and Z to the embassy party for drinks, they are powerful agents of influence in Freedonia”

    The history of counterespionage in Britain and the USA tends to show that the most successful traitors were either fairly deeply under cover and ideologically driven (Cambridge Five, Melita Norwood) or simply greedy, like the USN Rear Admiral at the Pentagon and Tom Driberg.

    Open radicals such as Foot were at best useful for a bit of noise, and the CPGB was considered by Moscow as being too small, too independent minded, and in most cases too amateurish, apart fromJames Klugman, Edith Tudor Hart and Bob Stewart to be any use in covert operations.

    Repeating an accusation against one of the great figures of the British left from the twentieth century, particularly one who was wedded to English concepts of liberty does not further your argument much, it devalues it.

    Naive hem certainly could be, but knave he certainly was not.

  12. uglyfatbloke says:

    The electoral picture is actually even less rosy than it looks because it is derived from ‘national’ polling. Our electoral system does not really work like that, so regional variations can have an enormous impact. Labour is 10% ahead of the Tories just now, but that will probably not be the case come the GE.
    Moreover, even if the ‘national’ situation continues, Labour is currently 15% behind the SNP in Scotland for Westminster voting intentions.
    Since the Gnats are in the middle of their second term we should be very wary of assuming that that situation will change to Labour ‘s advantage. If they keep their lead they will get the massive benefit that accrues to a leading party under FPTP; it ‘ll be them getting 80& (or more) of the seats for 40% (or less) of the vote.
    They would easily take two dozen seats from Labour if there were an election tomorrow.
    But the position is actually more challenging than that for two reasons.
    Firstly, although Labour will pretty surely gain the only Scottish Tory seat, the Scottish Glibs are completely washed up. One of their own officials told me that she expects that they will keep Orkney and Shetland (Alistair Carmichael is extremely popular) and is fairly hopeful about Charles Kennedy, but she reckons all the others will be out on their bums. One of those seats will most likely come to Labour, but the rest will assuredly fall to the Gnats. As things stand at the moment it looks like the gnats will very probably end up with at least 35 seats.
    Secondly, it would have a resonance with the ‘democratic deficit’ that Labour has been talking about for years, except that it would apply whichever party wins Nationally. Come 2015, if it looks like we will be headed for another dose of ‘Call me Dave’, the situation may actually become even worse; who does Labour have to match against Robertson or Hosie, let alone Salmond or Sturgeon,
    There is also a problem with personnel. The calibre of Scottish Labour MPs is very poor indeed. Even those who have been given ministerial jobs have been less than talented. Does anyone honestly think that Murphy or Roy or Curran or Ian (send me to the Lords) Davidson would ever get selected by a CLP in England or Wales? Of course not. Does anyone think that an intimate relationship between Labour and sectarian nutters like the Orange Order would be acceptable to party members in England? Of course not.
    Being in bed with the Tories in ‘Better Together’ is not going to be great help either. Just wait till we see Gnat posters and leaflets showing Darling and Cameron being all matey..,,perhaps with a strap-line of ‘Public School Chums out on the Campaign Trail’.
    It does not need to be this way, but if Labour is going to take on the gnats (and it has to be Labour because the Tories and Glibs are a lost cause north of the Tweed and the Solway) there needs to be a massive change in attitude and ambition.

  13. Rob Marchant says:

    @John: I think you have rather misinterpreted what I’ve written. I have never suggested Michael Foot was not an anti-Stalinist, in fact I have been at pains to point out his decency. However, I do not believe Charles Moore merely repeated what the Sunday Times wrote: the ST piece is different from the Gordievsky book, which is different from the Charles Moore piece (the latter contains new information, obviously). It has proved difficult to locate detailed transcripts from the libel case, but perhaps you have some information from it you would like to share?

    What is generally perceived by commentators, and the underlying point of this piece, was merely that Foot suffered from a certain naiveté. You may well not agree with this, of course, either, which is your right.

    @Danny: I’m amazed you have such detailed factual knowledge of who reads my articles, as I’m not sure even either the Labour Uncut editor or I have any clue. But, hey.

    @Ian Stewart: Indeed, it’s always a pleasure to debate with courteous commenters such as your good self (especially those who have an honest difference of opinion rather than an agenda).

    The “agent of influence” thing is a very interesting one. I think I agree with you it’s an emotive phrase which doesn’t mean very much. Part of where the Sunday Times went wrong, I think, was using this phrase interchangeably with “agent” which is less woolly and conjures up images of paid spies, which in Foot’s case is laughable. The key point being that Moore’s claim is not the same as the Sunday Times’. His is based on (a) the book, and (b) his later conversation with Gordievsky. However, what got lost in the whole libel trial, I think, and th

    I do not once suggest that Foot is an anti-democrat or was some kind of Stalinist. He was certainly not a knave. The issue is his naiveté in thinking any kind of contact with these people was not helping the other side, in however small a way that was. I am not sure that the meetings themselves were ever denied, by the way, although perhaps you may have evidence to the contrary. I think the issue of money was, but that’s where the debate lies.

    The problem that the left has always suffered from is the “useful idiot” phenomenon, one still highly prevalent today in its tolerance towards those inside and outside the Labour party who apologise for totalitarian regimes. Foot was not an apologist himself. But he felt the need for engagement, an engagement which I don’t believe is necessary, in fact it’s damaging to our cause.

    While I understand your respect for Foot (and to some extent share it), I believe he is also now part of history – and history must be debated and explored. Since Churchill’s death, there have been volumes written of accusation and counter-accusation; I fully expect the same will happen with Thatcher.

    Foot was, I think, a fine human being with great literary, oratory and other talents, but not I’m not sure he was a very great politician.

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ian: one line above got curtailed. It should read:

    However, what got lost in the whole libel trial, I think, is that Gordievsky got a lot of things right, while clearly not infallible.

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