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A Political Life: It’s the shameless doublespeak that makes politicians look like liars

With the public already disdainful of politicians, how can so many continue with the tactics of public obfuscation and diversion?

Ask the public what they’d like to see politicians give up as a new year resolution, and I’m sure top of the list would be “lying”. Or possibly “expenses”. Or “lying about expenses” to cover all bases.

Is that fair? Well, frankly, it depends what you mean by lying.

In the earliest recorded example, when the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel?”, He received the answer: “I don’t know” – a blatant lie – followed by: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, a skilled politician’s answer.

In my experience, even the least moralistic politicians don’t usually tell blatant lies, because any benefit they might gain is outweighed by the danger of getting caught. Only the wilfully reckless ignore that rule. The difficulty comes when a politician faces such damage if they tell the truth that the rewards for lying appear worth the risk. Hence, Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Archer denying sexual relations with their respective Monicas (Lewinsky, and Coghlan).

The only time I saw Gordon Brown face anything like that dilemma was when a journalist asked me if Tom Watson had visited his Scottish home prior to the 2006 “coup” against Tony Blair.

They had no evidence and asked the question with no confidence. So when Gordon told me Tom had indeed visited, I said – to my shame – we could probably get away with it. He replied instantly: “Never do that. It’s the lie that kills you.”

Of course, there’s a time-honoured alternative for politicians who want to tell the truth but avoid the damage, namely blaming bad advice from colleagues or civil servants, also known as the Adam and Eve defence.

One thing in private...

But then we look at the second half of Cain’s response, and it’s here where some politicians undoubtedly do make their profession look dishonest.

In a bygone era when a broadcast interview was just an annoying ritual for a politician to endure, the refusal to give straight answers to straight questions was understandable. Now that those interviews offer one of the few remaining opportunities to communicate directly to a mass audience, it is baffling that some politicians remain wedded to the tactics of diversion, obfuscation and half-truths. If someone like me cringes when an interviewee begins their answer with the phrase “What you should be asking is ...”, how are listeners, already hostile to politicians, expected to feel?

Old habits die hard, though, and the oldest for politicians is to say one thing in private and another in public. A biographer of Gordon’s once told me how a member of the current Shadow Cabinet waited until the tape recorder was off after a two-hour interview before saying with relish: “Right, now I can tell you what I really think.” For me, that shameless doublespeak – and public awareness of it – is as corrosive of trust in politics as any expenses abuses.

Micro-managing expectations

The doublespeak is especially deafening on election night. By early evening this 2 May, thanks to reports from members around the country, the respective party HQs should be able to forecast their share of the local elections vote down to the first decimal point.

Yet the triumphant party will downplay to journalists the scale of its expected victory so it can later call it “stunning”, while its opponents will warn that they’re set to lose one or two safe councils, turning these into “surprising” holds. This is justified by spin doctors of all parties as trying to get expectations in “the right place”, by which they mean lying to get them in the wrong place.

In his later years in office, Tony Blair’s team tried the opposite strategy, telling journalists they’d done much better than they actually had, simply in the hope that the first editions of the papers wouldn’t be such a bloodbath.

Personally, I made a point of telling journalists our full forecast as soon as I had it, on the grounds that being accurate, honest and helpful was better for our long-term relationships and credibility, whatever the overnight headlines.

I wasn’t around for the 2009 local elections, held at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, and not long after my own. The Tories polled 38 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 28 per cent and Labour 23 per cent. With those figures as the baseline and the rise of Ukip to contend with, trying to get expectations into the right place for the 2 May elections will be one hell of a job. I’m glad it’s not mine any more.

At least we don’t have the violence

But if Coalition spin doctors are apprehensive about those elections, at least their only worry is lost votes. This week, I’ve been talking to partners of Cafod, the charity I work with, in Kenya and Zimbabwe about their forthcoming elections, and the violence seen in 2008 when they last went to the polls.

Abdi Rauf was 14 when trouble erupted in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho. Rival factions rampaged through the tiny streets, and Abdi says: “It was difficult to sleep at night worrying that your house would be torched.” Korogocho’s St John’s Sports Society, funded by Cafod, organised football tournaments to get young people off the streets. Ahead of Kenya’s March elections, Abdi says: “St John’s is already working with all the different groups to build friendships and make sure they do not engage in violence. A lot of young people who witnessed the chaos five years ago say this time round, they have learned the lessons and are willing to work for peace.”

For the sake of Abdi and others like him, let’s hope Kenya’s and Zimbabwe’s politicians have learned the lessons too and are similarly resolved for peace. In private as well as in public.

Damian McBride is a former special adviser to Gordon Brown. He is the head of communications for Cafod.