Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Real concerns

Obviously the first reaction of any right-thinking person to this should be: Wa-hey.

Two caveats. First, there's a lot of concern that this is going to be some terrible dampner on free speech and political debate. I'm not saying there's no concern there, but I think this has been by people who see this thing as a judgement on the place of racism in politics. But as Mike Smithson argues, this case is really about where you draw the line between personal and political. If you look at the law:

    (1) A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which—

    (a) before or during an election,

    (b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election, makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true.

The restriction that political lies have to be about "personal character or conduct" is quite important. Candidates still have scope to besmirch each others political records without having to check their facts, or even think about whether what they're saying is even feasible. It's only when they start on the personal attacks that they need to have reasonable grounds for believing what they're saying. So if Phil had been telling porkies about Lib Dem policies, he would have been OK. And if the function of politicians worrying about the Representation of the People Act S.106 is that politicians shy away from unfounded ad hominem attacks on each other, and have to focus on policies... I struggle to think of a world in which that is a bad thing.

The more substantive concern is that Labour's nasty streak hardly stops with Phil Woolas:

Woolas was never anything more than a patsy. The fall guy. Ritual sacrifice to our conscience.


This case was not about clumsy photo shopping mixed with a few equally crude allegations. It was about the politics of immigration, religion and race. Or more accurately, about the Labour Party’s shameful failure to adopt a coherent, let alone moral, stance on any of these issues.


When Phil Woolas’ campaign took the decision to “get the white vote angry” it wasn’t an aberration. They were deploying a localised variation of a national strategy. When we, as a party, call for British jobs for British workers, or a ‘debate’ on immigration, we are speaking in code. And when the code is deciphered it says, “we think you’re racist, but we don’t care. We want you to vote for us anyway”.

That seems about right to me. There seem to be a lot of people in the party who think that Labour gets a lot of votes from angry Sun readers who like their politicians to beat up on the brown folks. And these folks worry that, if the Sun readers aren't getting their hate fix from Labour, they'll go elsewhere. Woolas saw that there was a position going in the Labour party for someone who was prepared to be that little bit nastier on immigration, and duly applied for the post. I'm not sure that makes him a patsy, exactly, but it's pretty clear that he's just the tip of the nasty iceberg.

The trick for the Labour party is to do this whilst not upsetting the more liberal types by obviously engaging in race-baiting, which upsets us latte-drinkers to such an extent that we may think of voting Lib Dem. This is usually accomplished by talking about how Labour must "address the very real concerns of the white working class."[1]

Which brings me to Ed Milliband, and his decision to give Woolas the Shadow Cabinet immigration post. Because the whole point of dog-whistles is plausible deniability. You need to be able to court the racist vote, whilst still being able to turn round to liberal-latte types like me and deny that you're being a racist. You're just addressing the VRCOTWWC in a responsible manner.

Having a guy who's "prepared to speak uncomfortable truths about immigration" might make some sort of sense for keeping hold of a few voters who might otherwise defect to the onside. I can just about understand the strategy, even if I think it's pretty disgusting. But giving the immigration brief to a guy who's now mainly famous for acting on his belief that the white working class weren't concerned enough, and then telling lies in order to get them to a suitable level of concern, though... that's not exactly walking the electoral tightrope, is it Eddie?

If you're sticking to your chief racist when most political strategists would tell you to cut him loose, then that sort of suggests that you don't have any problem with racism.[2] In fact, it's a pretty clear signal that you've opted to go with the race-baiting strategy, and all us liberal latte types can go fuck ourselves (or at least vote Lib Dem without feeling too guilty about it).

[1] There's a better argument that the "very real concerns of the white working class" are largely mythical, and that people who like racism are already voting for the BNP.

[2] Note that this would be the case however the verdict had gone. Everyone agrees that Woolas was trying to scare the whites by making up stories about the Islamic menace. The question was whether these stories were sufficiently personal to be illegal.


Phil Woolas, 2009:

Immigration minister Phil Woolas has also threatened legal action over "disgusting" allegations he claimed for women's clothing, nappies and comics.

Phil Woolas, 2010

It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found to have breached electoral laws.

Presumably The Telegraph's big mistake was not being a politician at election time.


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