Accusing your political opponents of lying is a terrible election tactic

Jeremy Hunt and Rachel Reeves have already insulted the voters by insulting each other, writes John Rentoul

Saturday 18 May 2024 15:57 BST
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt blasted Labour’s economic plans
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt blasted Labour’s economic plans (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


For a split second, Jeremy Hunt did the right thing on Friday. Invited by a journalist to describe Labour’s attack on his ambition to scrap national insurance a “lie”, he backed away, saying that calling it “a myth is as far as I’ll go”.

But he must have thought that this sounded too soft, because he changed direction in mid-sentence: “But it is a lie, I don’t make any bones about it. It is fake news, and it is an absolute disgrace to win this election by scaring pensioners about a policy that is not true.”

He should have had the courage of his first instinct. It would have fitted with the tenor of the speech he had just delivered, which was moderate in tone and reasonable in argument. He had tried to be fair to his opponents, he said, giving them the benefit of the doubt and taking the most cautious estimates of the costs of their policies, but he had reluctantly come to the conclusion that their sums did not add up. It was, therefore, his mournful duty to take to the lectern and inform the electorate that Labour had become confused and needed to do a little more work on its election promises.

In fact, I thought Hunt’s costing of Labour’s policies was too generous to the opposition. Keir Starmer has promised to decarbonise UK electricity generation by 2030, which is close to physically impossible and if it were seriously attempted would be ruinously expensive. Yet the Conservative document says meekly: “We have been fair to Labour and assumed the cost of the policy is as Labour set out.”

Overall, though, Hunt’s reasonable tone was a persuasive approach. Some of Labour’s sums are indeed ropey, which might give some floating voters reason to think that the party is not ready for office. But if any floating voters were watching Hunt’s answers to journalists, or reading about them, they would have been turned off by the chancellor’s transformation, mid-sentence, into a snarling politician calling his opponents liars.

I don’t know if I have mentioned this before, but I tend to think that Tony Blair was right. He said that his attacks on his Conservative opponents might have seemed “flat”, but that was the point: “I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgement; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop.” He wrote in his memoir: “Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims … they represent an insult, not an argument.”

As it happens, I agree with Hunt that Labour’s attack, pretending that pensioners would have to pay for Rishi Sunak’s “long-term ambition” to abolish national insurance contributions, is disgraceful. I think it is wrong to scare pensioners in this way. I thought it was disgraceful when Blair did it, in the 1997 election campaign. Labour took half a sentence from an old pamphlet by Peter Lilley, the social security secretary, and Blair claimed that it meant the Tories were “pledged to get rid of the state pension”.

It was untrue, and Blair knew it to be untrue, but he used it anyway. Not everything he did was right. It is just as untrue now to suggest that Sunak’s long-term ambition means cutting the state pension – and Starmer and Reeves know it to be untrue.

But calling it a “lie” doesn’t just lower the tone – it is an ineffective way to rebut the charge. A patient more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger explanation of the case for reducing what the Tories call a “tax on jobs” over time, while protecting the state pension with the triple lock, is more likely to gain a hearing.

Mine is a controversial view, which is a way of saying that I am in the minority and I am right. I think that the words “lie” or “liar” should never be used. What is the point of them? They will never change anyone’s mind, and they negate the one thing needed for constructive debate, which is to acknowledge the good faith of the other side. It is an insult, not an argument, as Blair said when he was being right.

I had a similar objection to Reeves accusing the Conservatives of “gaslighting” the public in her speech the other day. It was clever because it is a vivid phrase that caught the attention of headline-writers, but she was accusing the government of deceiving people about the state of the economy. That might be the mere give-and-take of politics, except that she was, in effect, casting doubt on the figures produced by the independent Office for National Statistics – telling people to believe what they “feel” rather than “lines on a graph”.

Gaslighting is just a fancy way of saying lying, and if people understand it at all, they will agree with it only if they already hate the Tories. The election campaign already seems to be in full flood, and the rhetoric is likely to become more heated. I hope it doesn’t.

I may be howling into the wind, but I hope politicians will avoid the word “lie” in this election campaign. Not because of some pious concern about debasing the public debate, but because it doesn’t work.

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