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Monday, July 15, 2013

How can we stop our politicians lying to us?

When it comes to political dishonesty, a great many people fall back on the old adage "How do you know if a politician is lying? - Because his lips are moving". This statement is amusing if judged as a witticism, however the folk wisdom that the joke relies on is actually rather concerning; the assumption that all politicians are uniform in their absolute dishonesty.

If intellectual laziness allows us to tar all politicians as equally and totally dishonest, it is no wonder that the public is rapidly losing faith in the political system, and apathy is setting in.

Perhaps this undermining of public faith in politics is deliberate? I mean, there is surely no easier bunch to rule than a population of desperately jaded and apathetic voters that are unwilling or unable to distinguish the differences between the main political parties. Political participation has been in decline for decades, and it would be naive to assume that this lack of participation has nothing to do with the fact that swathes of the general public feel that politicians are a bunch of self-serving liars with absolutely no interest in serving the public interest. Political participation has hit pitiful new lows in the last decade. The last two elections resulted in a men becoming Prime Minister despite mandates from significantly fewer than one in four of the electorate (Tony Blair 2005: 21.5%, David Cameron 2010: 23.5%), sandwiched between them was a man who never even won an election (Gordon Brown).

The intellectually lazy idea that all politicians are equally contemptible is easily undermined. Surely even the most rabid Tory would be more likely to take an Old Labour stalwart like Dennis Skinner at his word than a proven liar like David Cameron. And surely even the most fanatical Labour supporter must accept that a Tory like David Davis has more integrity than men like Tony Blair and Jack Straw that lied repeatedly in order to drag the country into supporting the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Some politicians are reasonably honest and straight up guys, others are rotten-to-the-core liars. It is sad that decent, hard-working politicians seem to be in such a minority these days, whilst the the majority seem to be slimy, self-serving career politicians, that would probably lie repeatedly to your face in order to justify the privatisation and lease-back of their own grandmother.

It would be great if all the dishonest, self-serving career-politician slime bags could be removed in one go, however, from a pragmatic perspective, this is phenomenally unlikely ever to happen. Even though we can't magically fix the whole political system in one bold swoop, there must be something that we can do to prevent this alarming decline in political integrity and the consequential rise in political apathy and abstentionism.

In my view we must single out the very worst offenders, and make sure that their dishonest words and actions become so well known that their name becomes usable as a synonym for dishonesty and lack of integrity. In the current government one man swims far deeper in the sewer of dishonesty than any other, the odious Iain Duncan Smith.

Iain Duncan Smith is a proven liar with a flair for hypocritical moralisation and empty bragging. Who could forget that he brazenly lied about his educational qualifications to the Tory party? Somehow, he got away with that one and was allowed to remain a Tory MP (most people get sacked when it is shown that they lied about their qualifications to their employer).

How about the fact that IDS "employed" his wife as his diary secretary on a £30,000 a year taxpayer funded salary, even though several people have claimed that she almost never made an appearance at his constituency office. For a man who has spent virtually his entire career suckling the teat of public sector finance, he's got some gall to launch an moralistic crusade against benefits claimants.

IDS and the Department of Work and Pensions he heads have been rebuked repeatedly by the UK Statistics Authority for repeated misuse of official statistics in order to spin utterly misleading narratives about the consequences of his welfare reforms. IDS has repeatedly misrepresented (or seemingly just invented) statistics to justify his moralistic crusade against the most needy people in society. To get an idea of how much of a dishonest intellectual pygmy the man is, please take a few minutes to read this demolition of the kind of intellectually lazy propaganda IDS is always spouting in defence of his harebrained schemes. In July 2013 he made the absurd defence of his repeated statistical lies with the claim that "I have a belief I am right". His stance is that stuff like facts and evidence are rendered irrelevant by the fervour of his belief; that his ignorance trumps our facts and analysis.

Another one of Iain's ludicrous justifications for his statistical lies is that they don't matter because his policies are popular. It doesn't even factor into Iain's consideration that his policies are popular because people's conceptions are based on lies. Take the Daily Mail's belated admission that they had endlessly repeated a lie concocted by Iain Duncan Smith and Grant Shapps. Take the fact that due to this misleading anti-welfare propaganda barrage, the average Brit is now so badly misinformed about welfare that they believe £24 out of every £100 spent on welfare is claimed fraudulently, when the real figure is actually only 70p. Take the fact that the more misinformed people are about welfare spending, the more likely they are to support harsh welfare reforms. Taken all together it is absolutely clear why Iain Duncan Smith continues to lie about welfare; the more lies he tells, the more public support he generates for his policies.

Iain Duncan Smith certainly seems to fit Asimov's definition
of an anti-intellectualist.
Iain Duncan Smith is also famous for his habit of empty bragging (a different form of lie to deliberate statistical misrepresentation). In April 2013 he boasted that he could easily live on £53 per week. When 478,000 people signed a petition for him to prove his claim by doing so for a year he dismissed it as a "complete stunt". Many of the people that signed the petition that he ignored probably use a rhyming expression to refer to him.

IDS isn't just dishonest, he also has other character traits that bring politics into disrepute. In November 2012 he demonstrated his contempt for the dead by shouting down a tribute to two dead disabled people with an angry and self-righteous political tirade. To anyone that recognises IDS as the callous monster that he is, perhaps the most shocking thing about it was the fact that he got a round of applause from the reactionaries in the audience. One wonders whether the audience would have politely applauded someone who had similarly interrupted a tribute to dead British soldiers with an angry political rant.

Politicians like Iain Duncan Smith must not be allowed to get away with lying to the public, and then inventing absurd justifications for their lies when they are caught out, instead of actually apologising for their dishonesty.

What we can do ...

Firstly there needs to be a lot of public pressure on the political classes to introduce a new code of conduct, where MPs that have lied to parliament (or whilst serving their official functions as government ministers) must face serious consequences. Lying politicians should be made to publicly acknowledge the fact that they lied and apologise for misleading the public and undermining public faith in politics. Then they should be made to suffer real consequences for their dishonesty, perhaps the loss of parliamentary salary and allowances for a week for first offences or minor transgressions, but with the threat of long-term or even permanent exclusion from parliament for those that repeatedly lie.

Such a code of conduct would have two important effects. Public faith in politics would be somewhat restored by the imposition of a system of punishment for politicians that lie, and politicians themselves would be incentivised to behave with more integrity, probably not because they actually believe that integrity is important, but out of the desire to preserve their self-interest (their full-salary, their public standing, their job, their political power).

Just a tiny selection of Iain Duncan Smith's lies.
Aside from calling for a new code of conduct for MPs, we must also try to single out the worst offenders. Dishonest, malicious and intellectually lazy politicians like Iain Duncan Smith must be singled out and shamed. Of course Iain's reactionary supporters will point to Tony Blair's dishonesty as an excuse for Iain Duncan Smith's, an argument that relies on two bits of shamefully lazy reasoning: Anyone criticising a Tory must by definition be a Tony Blair loving Labour supporter and that one wrong somehow excuses another.

This kind of weak-minded "whataboutery" can easily be countered with the assertion that we dislike Iain Duncan Smith, not because we are Tony Blair fanatics, but because his appalling lack of integrity is destroying public faith in politics.

Without a concerted effort to make politicians accountable for their lies, the downward spiral of dishonesty and apathy is certain to continue. We can either sit back and accept that this decline in standards is inevitable, or we can attempt to fight back by singling out the worst offenders and calling for a new code of conduct in order to enforce higher standards of integrity on our political representatives.

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