I’m currently working on a dissertation about British Politics and that Dark Art called ‘spin’. Political Spin is a widely used, but little agreed upon term. Within its mouldy folds are practices such as focus groups and polling. These are used to inject facts into the process of campaigning and then into the communication of government policy to party and electorate. I say ‘facts’, I mean anything but, as you will soon see.
Recently the British Labour Party not only lost a General Election but also a great deal of credibility. It lost this with people who were looking to it to challenge the Neoliberal or Monetarist or whatever term you prefer to use to describe the ideological policies underpinning the most recent current fad for economic austerity.
Any sort of challenge to Austerity is seen and spoken about by its opponents of the traditional political Right as well as by those in (1)the Soft Left and Old New Labour, as Socialism.
Socialism in this inflexibly bent narrative is directly equatable to Communism, which in turn is directly equatable to strikes, coffins in the streets, garbage in school yards, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and queues for food in empty shelved supermarkets filled with severed heads and little red books. The Horror. The Horror; ergo all sensible argument flies out of the window.
One thing I’ve learned in my studies into political spin is that being sensible isn’t that important as long as you consider that most of the people that you’re spinning at are either already on-side or as thick as a bag of manifesto promises. You can actually discount the first group. The second group is, however, essential to swing over to your side. Most importantly this group has to be kidded into thinking that their opinions are important and are aligned with yours even if they hadn’t realised that they had those opinions to begin with.
The key to this according to the keenest minds in spin is to attempt to occupy not the high ground but the mythical, mysterious, consensual “Centre Ground” as proposed by, among others, Philip Gould, the former ad-man, pollster and according to Tony Blair, “an inventor of New Labour and the third way”. This centre ground is central to New Labour’s Third Way – which promises to be pragmatic, realistic and progressive, radical, reforming and iconoclastic yet also open-minded, “guided by an old compass”, and “chained to the aspirations of real people” (these are all one from speech made by Tony Blair, not in 1997 but in 2014 presumably with the hand of history on his back).(2)). In short, a whole bunch of evangelical ephemera (‘real people’ being my favourite).
But how does one gain this ‘Centre Grail’, sorry ‘Ground’?
Why there are a number of ways of achieving it in the spin-doctor’s black bag: Take the ‘Vacuous/Nebulous Promise’. This old classic masquerades as a passionate but well planned and sensible call to something meaningful. It cannot ever actually be assessed or judged (see the image of Liz Kendall’s recent attempt to emulate New Labour’s famous 1997 Promise Card). This is good for the quick hit by a very, very poor team of spinners because it seems to be “saying something”. Not “saying something” is perceived as silence, and silence is death apparently.
Then there is one of the most powerful tools – The Poll.
Polls are excellent for the sort of obfuscation and propaganda needed to convince the people that you think are a bit stupid and certainly undecided to follow your nebulous promises. This is because they are supported by nearly a century of ‘statistics’ and that’s nearly Science, right? Science is Fact. Facts are unarguable. Polls are therefore, in the world of Spin, directly equatable to Science.
You will often hear the phrase used to described TV or radio programme ‘straw polls’ (a show of hands) as, “our unscientific poll” to describe Vox Pops. What does this also signify? Obviously that there is such a thing as a Scientific Poll! There isn’t, someone always has to ask the question.
But somehow the factuality and science of polling persists and so must be used. One of Soft Labour’s blogging supporters is a site called LabourList.org. Its previous editor Mark Ferguson left his post to lobby/campaign for the last-placed candidate in the current Labour leadership battle, the Blairite Liz Kendall. According to, well, itself: “LabourList is an independent progressive blog providing a platform for open debate about centre-left issues and the future of the Labour movement”. LabourList believes in polls where necessary, so it ran one.(3)
Today the Independent Inquiry into why Labour lost announces the first of its findings. We set up the Inquiry because we wanted an objective, empirical analysis of why Labour lost in May. Our aim is to help Labour understand its defeat and so begin to reconnect with the electorate and rebuild its politics. It will require accepting some hard truths.
“Objective, empirical analysis”. See? That’s basically Science, right? And what did this discover? This is what.
“The Tories won because voters believed they will cut the deficit, even though a majority understand that the economic system is unfair. The Tories message on the deficit was clear, Labour’s was not. The Tories are trusted to manage the country’s finances, Labour is not.”
That’s right, under a headline that read: ‘Labour lost because voters believed it was anti-austerity’ Jon Cruddas MP(1) uses poll data to show why, “The Tories won”. See the trick?
The trick is to turn the agenda towards the success of the Right (or Centre-Right if you like, and Cruddas certainly does) rather than to the possibility that a more Leftist view could be useful to explore. The data are largely irrelevant using this trick.
It is a trick akin to your boxing coach telling you that you lost because you are left-handed. Your opponent won because they are right-handed so to win you must become be right-handed. It uses two facts to support a fallacious conclusion.
It’s a good trick and it’s based on sleight-of-hand and the assumption of stupidity or complacency among the readership. That’s us.
Both of LabourList’s statements in this case – empirical and objective as they may be – also strangely, support Labour leadership candidates Yvette Copper (a Brownite New Labour leaner) and Liz Kendall (plain Blairite New Labour)?
And how was this objective evidence and conclusion reached? Polling, of course. Obviously, that polling used questions (that were published with a commentary by Jon Cruddas – “The last intellectual vestige of the soft left”(1)). And those questions are so unbelievably silly as to make even hardened spin-doctors gawp in astonishment at their utter pointlessness.
This one is plainly hilarious. The SNP provides huge opposition to Labour both in terms of hearts and mind, and also practically in terms of Parliamentary heft. It is also the party seen by many as holding a flame of the honest and idealistic rather than cynically pragmatic leftish values once associated with Labour that many tired, cynical voters are once again looking to. Soft Labour needs to counter this. So, why not ask how terrifying you would be of a hoard of Scottish Nationalists governing the UK including England? Well, one reason not to is that it’s not possible for this to occur in the current electoral system.
Another way of framing the question: “How would you feel, given current realities, about Labour governing in coalition with the SNP to achieve real and positive change?” Sure, it’s equally nebulous in its promise, but it would certainly have come up with different results. But now for the real kicker. The next question really, really, really assumes that you’re either thick as a brick.
The premise proposes that you agree that “we must live within our means”. Sure, why not. Hold on. What ‘means’? Surely, the simple answer is that you are free of debt? We’d all agree on that. But am I in debt if I own £10 but owe £11 while at the same time being owed £21 in a week’s time?
I can currently hold an almost unlimited number of credit cards. I can probably get several loans. I owe money on my mortgage. But this is all legal because I can apparently pay everything back one day due to the guesswork of credit agencies based on what I’ve told them supported by what happened on the last few decades. My credit agency rating is good. For a while at least. I am living within my means. If it turns out that I am also “too big to fail”, then I will continue to be living within my means even when I’ve been leant more money to enable to continue “living within my means”. Fun this isn’t it?
On the macro scale: the United Kingdom’s “means” are qualified by its balance of payments? Maybe its GDP? What about its GNP? Are those the same? How about GDP vs National Debt? How about its Budget Deficit or its Structural deficit? How about its Deficit/Surplus as a percentage of GDP? I have literally no idea what most of this means, I am not an economist. It is equally true that I have no idea if I agree with a proposition based on the notion of “living within our means” – especially as yours differs from mine.
Now, “cutting the deficit”? What the actual faaa? If we agree with the first bit (the first, wooly, misleading bit) then we agree with this? That’s a poll question? A question to help rebuild a shattered political party? Go on then. What the bloody hell is “The Deficit” and how the bloody hell do we “Cut it”. Here I’m not being deliberately stupid. This is what the BBC’s Richard Anderson had to say on the matter(4).
The next time you hear politicians arguing about debt levels and deficits, you’ll hopefully be in a better position to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. Just bear in mind they could be talking about different things, so don’t be surprised if they’re both right. Or wrong.
Right now, we are in the middle of a spinning vortex in which terms “electability”, “austerity”, “our means” and “powerful ideas” are being thrown around on the assumption that “real people” and “hardworking families” are all understood and cohesive. These assumptions are supported by charlatanism in the form of “Non-Unscientific Polls”, their questions formed empirically and objectively… by people. Beware of polls and most of all beware of pollsters. Everybody has an agenda.
More on Spin when the archives allow. But while you’re here, you might like to look at his little gem from 1966.