Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Spin: the right's good at it. But the left's not bad either

What’s in a word? Or, for that matter, a number?

Well, they’re invaluable if you want to communicate information. Or, for that matter, disinformation. The latter even requires a little ingenuity.

For example, when UK Prime Minister Theresa May formally told the EU that Britain would be leaving, she expressed the hope that a mutually beneficial new relationship could be established but warned that, in the event it could not, “in security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.

The EU reacted with some heat to what it saw as an attempt at blackmail: give us a good deal or we stop cooperating on security and crime. May was shocked and pointed out that she intended no blackmail. Despite her denial, however, the threat is not out there – and won’t be forgotten.

What she forgot to mention in her letter was the status of Gibraltar. So the EU had its own surprise for Britain: arrangements for the rock have to be agreed with Spain. This is a horrific notion to true Brits: how does the obvious geographic fact that Gib is part of Spain trump Britain’s right of conquest?

Fortunately, former Conservative leader Michael Howard set the record straight.

“35 years ago this week,” he announced, “another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people, against another Spanish-speaking country. And I’m absolutely certain that our current Prime Minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

Some misguided observers, including me, took this parallel as suggesting a parallelism in planned action too. Was war with Spain imminent? Oh, no, Howard quickly assured us, nothing could be further from his mind. The Prime Minister herself laughed at the idea.

Again, though, it’s out there.

This smart use of ambiguous or imprecise language is an aspect of spin, and the Tories are good at it. But, it turns out, it’s not a monopoly of the right wing. The left uses the same methods. In Britain, the Labour Party is dominated by a left-wing trend that backs the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Under his leadership, Labour has reached a low-point in the polls which suggests it is heading for its most calamitous defeat for 80 years.

Among his supporters, however, none of this is attributable to him. For instance, a recent Corbynista blog post I read included this table:

Numbers: they’re so reliable.
Except when they aren’t. And words are still worse
That use of the word ‘coup’ is smart. A coup is the kind of thing that was attempted against Turkish President Erdogan. It involves threatened or actual violence; it is illegal and extra-constitutional, its methods sanctioned by no law or agreement. 

The Labour Party ‘coup’ was a vote of no-confidence by Corbyn’s colleagues in parliament. He lost it massively – 80% voted against him. He had to stand again for the leadership. None of this is extra-constitutional: on the contrary, it followed procedures specified by the Labour rulebook.

It’s arguable that the decision to precipitate a new leadership election was unwise politically, since Corbyn won it with a large majority. That, however, is a political view. It does not make the move against him a coup. But calling it one neatly intensifies the opprobrium against his opponents: a coup is illegitimate, treacherous, despicable.

There is, however, an opposite political view, to which I personally subscribe. If his fellow MPs felt Corbyn was leading the party to defeat, they had not merely the right, but the obligation to act against him. My feeling is that nothing we have seen since does anything but confirm the fears of his opponents: the decline is spectacular and there is no sign of its ending.

What about the numbers in the table? The “pre-coup” figures showed Labour ahead in one poll in April. The message seems compelling: look how the plotters spoiled things!

The broader picture.
Gives a better view. Unless that’s just what you’re trying to avoid
Source: UK Polling Report
But set the figures in context and a different picture emerges. The graph shows that at the time of Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership, the Conservative poll lead was somewhere in the 5-10% range. This was desperately bad, because to win an election, an opposition needs to be well ahead a year or so into a parliament. For a brief period, from about March to June 2016, the position became a little less dire with Labour trailing by between 0 and 5 points. Not too much importance should be assigned to the few polls that went so far as to show a Labour lead: occasional extreme findings are bound to happen by pure chance. The overall picture is of a general Conservative lead, though a smaller one than in the autumn.

Since then the position has steadily worsened. Long after the “coup”, Corbyn’s reaffirmed leadership has failed to turn the tide: in the polls, it continues to flow strongly against him. Again, ignoring occasional extreme results, the deficit seems to be of about 15 points, with an underlying trend against and not for Labour.

Whatever certain Labourites may have done against him, Corbyn is clearly proving unable to do anything for the party. Not, at least, as far as staunching the wound through which our electoral life blood is flowing.

That’s a painful message for his supporters. It’s not one they want to mention or even think about. It’s much more comforting to spin it with references to coups and one or two spurious poll results.

Well, who can blame them? The Tories have shown the technique works. Just don’t claim it’s left-wing.

Or particularly honest.

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