During the London Mayoral election campaign, Ken Livingstone’s personal Socialist Action attack squad descended on Labour Party HQ, to run what they believed would be their man’s third successive victory. They knew how they were going to win it too: by branding Boris Johnson – whose wife is of mixed English and Asian origin – a racist. Their trump card, so they thought, was an article in which Johnson had used the term ‘picaninny’, albeit in the context of a sarcastic vignette about Blair’s supposedly patronising attitude to his visitees, on a world tour.
“Don’t do that” advised the non-Livingstone Labour staffers. “It will backfire. Boris isn’t a racist, and this accusation will make us look as if we’re flailing out wildly”.
The Labour campaigners who weren’t part of the Livingstone clique favoured a different strategy: of concentrating of Johnson’s obvious and genuine flaws. “Focus on his laziness, his tendency to fly by the seat of his pants, not to follow through, to busk it, to cover up his hopelessness with charm and bluster”, they advised. “Playing the race card will just remind the electorate of how many times Ken did precisely that, when he was on the ropes. It will make us look weird and nasty”.
Well, the Livingstonites won the argument on election strategy: but lost the election.
The present McBride-Draper affair shows that the lesson of Ken’s defeat has not been learnt. Now we’ve seen what was planned, even Labour supporters are sickened. Imagine how floating voters must feel.
The thing is, it is absolutely crystal clear what is wrong with the Tories. Cameron is an amiable fellow – he seems nice – but he is a mediocrity. Osborne still has the air of the boy who can’t believe his luck in getting into the Bullingdon. The Tories have not created the impression that they know what they’re doing. There is, quite simply, no positive reason to vote Tory.
God knows, Labour has its own problems, but I shall most definitely continue to vote for the party. My determination is in no means strengthened by the thought that Osbourne might have shagged a tart. I’m insulted that somebody might think it would be.
Sunder Katwala gets it right at the Next Left Fabian blog:
There are three different reactions to such episodes, when they happen to your political friends and opponents.
(1) All’s fair in love and war – but its better not to get caught.
This view involves hyper-partisan fulmination whenever anything happens on the other side (while naturally being chuffed to bits about it). On your own side, exoneration and mitigation where possible, throwing in a bit of ‘whataboutery’ to try and even it up. Occasionally, to admit to being shocked, genuinely, or in the style of Claude Rains in Casablanca.
I have no idea what proportion of the political operatives on both sides of the political aisle take that view. It would be cynical to say it was a majority of political insiders – but naive to suggest that nobody thinks like that.
(2) Fairness across party boundaries.
This is the approach taken by higher minded columnists and leader writers on the better newspapers; the good chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees, like Dr Tony Wright MP, and a fair sprinkling of people in and around groups like the Fabian Society, the Bow Group, the thinking end of the Liberal Democrats and so on. This is the right thing to do. We here at Next Left try to do a fair amount of this – however imperfectly – as do the more serious bloggers from left, right and centre. Those who attempt such an approach are seen by some colleagues as having an underdeveloped sense of loyalty and partisanship, and being rather academic and vicar-like. Part of that is the fair point that the liberal-left is somewhat better at this than the right. (We would say that, wouldn’t we?) So we are sometimes legitimately open to the observation that they are always bending over backwards to be fair to the Conservatives, when that is more rarely reciprocated by the right.
(3) Enlightened partisanship
So for those who can’t make it that far, let me propose a lesson from evolutionary theory – where it turns out that reciprocal altruism is a better self-interested strategy that narrow selfishness. The lesson of political evolution is that tribalism can kill the tribe, as Martin Bright argues on The Spectator blog
I can’t see the point of ‘hyper-partisanship’ at all. It turns pretty much everybody off. Even if you don’t actually propose to make up and disseminate lies about your opponents, it makes you look like an untrustworthy witness.
There are sometimes times when it is necessary to focus on the flaws of those who are seeking to gain political power. We do it here. However, when Kate Hudson condemns Korean missile tests, or Galloway speaks out against antisemitism, that should also be acknowleged.
Fairness to your political opponents reflects as well on you, as it does on them. Lying, by contrast, will always make you seem weird and nasty. As we’ve seen, in politics, that is a death sentence.