by Rob Marchant
If there were to be a nadir of democratic politics, in the sense of public apathy towards truthfulness in their politicians, even in the strange world of 2016, we may not yet have reached it.
The unprecedented election of a seemingly pathological liar to the post of leader of the Free World is pretty bad. But 2016 may yet, appallingly, see a lying far-right politician elected as French president. It is not expected: but then, no-one really expected Trump, either. These are strange times. Worst of all, it seems that, the more mainstream politicians warn against a populist being elected, the more people vote for them.
But the real disaster that this populism brings in its wake is this: others believe that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. And so we see mainstream politicians lying: for example, about Brexit, with the now-notorious £350m to be saved and pledged to the NHS.
Now, there are two lazy clichés that commentators, or members of the public, will periodically trot out about politicians. One is that they are “all the same”, when that is patently not the case. There are decent British politicians in all parties, at least the major ones. Those of us who have worked in politics for any length of time will testify to the often quite pleasantly surprising levels of dedication to public service in the face of constant brickbats, lack of job security, aggressive whips, hostile colleagues and an often thankless public.
But the second is even more familiar: “all politicians are liars”. Well, no, they’re not – historically, mainstream politicians tend to be demonstrably truthful, as it’s too easy to humiliate them when they get caught. But the precedent is certainly being set currently that it’s increasingly ok to lie.
In many ways, this is a development of the growing conspiracy theory among the public that all mainstream media, the so-called “MSM”, are also liars. And so Russia Today (RT) can broadcast lies, and be met by the politically aware with either (a) blind belief, because it tells many people what they want to hear, or (b) “whataboutery” when their flimsy misinformation collapses: “ah, but what about the Daily Telegraph / Guardian (delete as applicable)? They’re just as bad.”
Well, no. They are not just as bad, and to say so is not just inaccurate but dangerous. While our media does often stretch and twist the truth, there are some basic and functioning safeguards – such as the regulator OfCom – to prevent the printing of outright lies, as RT demonstrably does.
So, apply that same principle to politics and you end up with Trump (who, in a fit of chutzpah, went some way in neutralising this accusation by brazenly branding his opponent a liar from the off). Or Farage. Or Le Pen. Or Greece’s Syriza, for that matter: it doesn’t matter whether you are on the far left or the far right, the principle is the same. Populist slogans, long on emotion, short on truth. Accuse the other side of lying. Blame them for everything, whether there’s truth in it or not.
And so we come to Labour. Like the US Republicans, it provides the unedifying spectacle of a mainstream, rather than a marginal, party practising post-truth politics.
The awkward truth is that, in Britain at least, we were one of the “early adopters”. Ken Livingstone, the now-disgraced former mayor of London, has been one of its leading exponents since the 1980s. As I argued in the New Statesman four years ago, his blatant, er, economie avec la actualité initially translated poorly into the internet age, where people can find you out and evidence lives for ever.
Perhaps we are in the next phase of the internet age, where it is so easy to find evidence of lies that people choose to convince themselves that the evidence itself is flawed. This tends to be the approach pursued by RT, in fact: in the face of firm evidence that you are lying, shamelessly smear the accuser or the evidence.
However, apart from the disgraced mayor, no-one else important in Labour ever really used to be accused of this approach, for the simple reason that the hard left was marginalised and ignored. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could largely say what they liked: no-one was listening.
Fast forward to 2016: thanks to an extraordinary series of events, this unlikely duo find themselves in charge of Britain’s largest-membership political party. People have started listening.
And these politicians, suddenly blinking in the glare of the media spotlight, have pasts to hide. Pasts which merely deleting old pages of their constituency websites cannot fully cover. And so there starts a campaign of confusion to try and smear those who shine those spotlights.
For example, Corbyn has still not adequately explained why he still attended the convention of a celebrated anti-Semite, some seven years after he was outed as such. Or why he was caught pretending not to be able to find a seat on a train. Or why he publicly claimed to be pro-Remain in the referendum, when practically the whole PLP felt that the reverse was clearly the case.
It is true that this disingenuousness might be thought relatively gentle compared to what Trump has got away with. And Trump is in power, where Corbyn never will be. But that is no excuse: the principle of disingenuousness is the same, as are the tactics of defence.
Deny. Smear the investigator who produces the evidence. Say the other side are lying anyway. Refuse to talk to the media and accuse them of harassment.
But for democratic politics, this post-truth world is truly cancerous. The more people see lies, the less they care. The less they care, the more blatant the lies become. Over time, expectations in the political process – rarely high at the best of times – are eroded.
And the worst thing for political parties themselves, of course, is the vicious-circle effect on the quality of supporters they attract. Those with critical faculties find themselves increasingly unable to follow your party and you end up filling your membership lists with those who lack them. Who vote for more of the same.
Ultimately, the senses of the population become dulled and jaded from so much foolishness among politicians, even to the extent that they largely cease to care who governs them. We are back to “they’re all the same”.
One day, of course, the whole shaky edifice will come crashing down. People eventually tire of provable lies and facile answers. Eventually the world returns to its senses. Eventually.
The hope is that we do not have to return to extreme of the last time post-truth, propagandist politics truly infected the Free World and it looked for easy answers – the disastrous 1930s – before that happens.
In the meantime, those moderate forces who have elected to stay in Labour must fight tooth and nail against this cancer of fact-free politics. And that is because in the end it is eating away, not just at our party, but at the whole political system.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left