What’s the quickest way to get a politician off your doorstep? Easy - tell them that you intend to vote for them. This curious reflex tells us something about the nature of electioneering. Politicians only canvass those voters who don’t share their beliefs. Unlike most political discourse, which consists of preaching details to the converted, election campaigns must ignore the saved and focus on the heathens.
It follows then that electioneering is always an attempt to convince people that you know their interests better than they do; you know what’s good for them, better than they do:
Knock knock “Can we count on your vote? We can? Wonderful, do have a nice evening.”
Knock knock, “Can we count on your vote? We can’t?” (ugh!) “I see. But are you aware that by not voting for us it is very likely that X will occur?”
…with ‘X’ being whatever issue that party is fielding as vital to the constituent’s interests. By declaring their intention to vote for somebody else the voter has demonstrated a lack of awareness about the dangers or benefits of ‘X’. Fortunately the canvasser is there to lift the scales from their eyes.
Of course the canvasser needn't truly believe in the stated ‘X’. A false or irrelevant ‘X’ can be cited to frighten or attract constituents into voting for agendas quite contrary to their interests. Benefit-claimants voting UKIP do look rather like Turkeys voting for Christmas. UKIP is a party born of disgruntled right-wing Tories, quite open in their desire to destroy the welfare state. Openly stating such intentions on claimants’ doorsteps is unlikely to win their votes, so UKIP canvassers keep a more palatable ‘X’ up their sleeves - immigration.
Not all false ‘X’s are cynical, at least not in intent. There is also room for the benevolent false ‘X’. A canvasser might view this one false ‘X’ as a small price to pay for all the greater goods that would be bestowed upon the voter if their party wins office. Again we can frame this using UKIP canvassers. While some might despise claimants, it’s possible that others see themselves as the claimants’ saviour. If they were free to speak their minds on the doorstep it would probably run something like: Your benefits need to be cut because that will force you into work. Not only will this will give you back your dignity, it will allow us to cut taxes so the economy can expand. Everyone will win.
Regardless of intent, hardly a vote winner. So for the greater good the well-meaning UKIP rep must reach for a benevolent false X, such as: If you don’t vote for us hordes of Romanians will arrive and infect your family with AIDS. Or some such.
Fortunately not all parties stoop so low. By nature less cynical, Greens are less inclined to employ false X’s. Less fortunately, openness is even less likely to win them the claimants’ vote. A reasonable desire of the poor is to not be so poor. In capitalist countries this has traditionally been achieved by expanding the economy and thereby creating more jobs. By contrast, a core tenet of Green politics is to apply the brakes, shrink output, and encourage us all to make do with less.
Presumably their doorstep arguments focus on the long-term: If we lower output and invest in less damaging industries we will all win in the end – assuming the survival of our species is taken to constitute a victory. But long-term goals are not well suited to election campaigns. If, as suggested above, electioneering is a matter of convincing people that you know their interests better than they do, the Greens have a job on their hands. The oft-heard claim “I would actually welcome an economic slow-down, even if it does eat into my income” is surely a luxury of the comfortably-off. It’s a very difficult dream to sell to the impoverished.
Finally, alas, there is more to electioneering than policy. Against sounder judgement, we also tend to vote on the basis of personality. Vacuous from the outset, this aspect of electioneering is highly prone to falsehood. It’s little more than an arms race between competing ad agencies, with no relevance to political acumen – surely the only aspect of personality that should concern us.
Pretending to like bacon sandwiches or Cornish pasties or Aston Ham (or was it West Villa?) are false X’s of this kind. The aim is to conjure an illusion of fraternity between the Eton educated politician and those voters who genuinely revel in such masculine activities. All colours of politicians can content themselves with the thought that these too are benevolent false X’s, white lies for the greater good.
On the face of it, it might sound like honest politics is impossible, or dead, or was never alive in the first place. I hope to close with something less hackneyed. I would argue that honest politics can and does exist, but it is forced to exist at some remove from the ‘politics’ that that is presented to the electorate. It is simply not possible for someone hoping to gain office to consistently air their true beliefs. While some of this disjunction can be put down to cynicism of a Machiavellian kind, much of it is an unavoidable consequence of our political system. Perhaps it is true of all political systems, but in a mass democracy informed by a corporate-owned mass media it is necessarily the case.
First then, to clarify what is meant by honest politics. These are simply those views politicians genuinely hold – the opinions that actually reside in their heads; the subject matter discussed in confidence, with friends, family and other party members, behind closed or slightly-ajar doors.
It is important to note then that honest politics in this sense has nothing to do with virtuous politics. It has no necessary connection with fairness or kindness or even accuracy. The only intrinsic virtue of honest politics is that they are honestly believed. Even Hitler and Stalin had honest political beliefs in this sense. That those beliefs were false and despicable has no bearing on their honesty as beliefs.
Here then are two reasons why such honest political beliefs cannot always be aired in public. Both stem from the need to pretend that one-size can fit all. Firstly our political system requires parties to be unified over policy. That is to say, it requires entities composed of a multitude of human minds to pretend they are of one mind. This is particularly true at election time, when these aggregations of notoriously opinionated humans are obliged to rally round a single document – the manifesto – and act as though they agree with every word of it.
If you want to gain power you don’t have much choice. The alternatives are to either publicly disagree with the manifesto and become a dissident within your party, or publicly disagree with the manifesto and remain within the party fold, in which case the media will say that the party is split on policy, and therefore unelectable.
Secondly, to secure a large enough vote, parties are obliged to present their policies as if they will be of benefit to a larger section of the electorate than possibly can benefit. Manifestos can admit no losers; aside from paedophiles and illegal immigrants, every section of society must be assured that it will win.
In the real world of course this is just not possible. The most important political changes often are zero-sum. One person’s tax break is another’s tax hike, or loss of state benefits. One company’s freedom to invest abroad is another’s bankruptcy.
We can now understand, if not forgive, many of the false X’s that are presented on the doorstep. Canvassers really are in a bind. Frequently, they themselves have no faith in the policies they have been assigned to promote. Even when they do, they know damn well that those policies may work to the detriment of the voter they are addressing.
If lying is too strong a word, a great deal of tiptoeing is inevitable (never a wise practice on a doorstep). There will be a strong incentive for omission, steering the discussion away from policies that jar with the canvasser’s heart or the voter’s best interests; masking and shaving and gilding of policy; stealthy downplaying and up-playing of relevant consequences. And when the uncomfortable stuff is thrust upon the canvasser, and discussion becomes unavoidable, presumably some honest lying does take place – for the greater good, of course.
Like one-size-fits-all shoes, one-size-fits-all politics are not a practical possibility. The hearty endorsements and claims of total comfort have a hollow ring. The smile of the bearer, like that of the wearer, is more of a twisted grimace. So what is to be done? Perhaps not much. It may just be my lack of imagination, but I can’t envisage any democratic system where what politicians say matches exactly with what they think. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to minimise the gap between honest politics and declared politics. But how to go about that is another matter.
A different approach would be to learn to live with the gap, but critically. If we resign ourselves to inevitable falsehoods perhaps we can better distinguish between the cynical and the forgivable lies. Instead of joining-in with the media’s feigned shock and disillusionment each time an untruth is revealed we would do well to pause, and assess the motives. Was this a Machiavellian lie to facilitate unwanted political change? Or was it the regrettable consequence of a political system that demands an impossible level of political unity.
Of course such judgements are themselves politically charged. I judge the falsehoods that led to the invasion of Iraq as firmly Machiavellian. Conversely, while I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, I see his lies about his sex life as inconsequential. He lied about something politically irrelevant so as to stay afloat in a political culture that places a premium on the irrelevant. So what? People of a different political persuasion see it differently, I’m sure.