Natalie Elphicke is a non-executive director of a leading building society and a published policy writer on housing and housing finance with Policy Exchange and the Centre for Policy Studies. She is co-founder and Chairman of Million Homes, Million Lives.
A week ago at Prime Minister’s questions, David Cameron was taunted and David Freud excoriated over a classic “mis-speak” at a fringe meeting at party conference. Lord Freud was speaking about the importance of getting severely disabled people into work. His mis-speak was taken out of context and distorted for maximum political effect. A “mis-speak” is a clumsy expression; the imperfect turn of phrase. That the audience itself did not react adversely to the turn of phrase at the time, an audience packed with lobbyists and welfare groups, speaks volumes about whether or not there was any offence intended or taken at the time. Ed Miliband’s taunt had all the overtones of the playground bully – the person who takes a slip of the tongue and taunts, teases humiliates and diminishes.
We cannot answer this political age by the pursuit of perfection. Neither should we. People make statements and mis-statements; comments can be mis-interpreted or mis-understood. Generally, comments are misunderstood through mistake, mis-hearing or mis-understanding or lack of context, lack of knowledge or lack of empathy.
Sometimes comments are deliberately distorted, mis-stated, part stated or manipulated – with malice and ill intent – to disinform, not to inform; to distort, rather than to shed light. Such spite and malice, such distortion: these are deliberate tactics from parties and politicians with nothing good to say, no new ideas for the future and who cannot admit their responsibility for their failings in the past. The so-called Sultans of Spin have become the Masters of the Mistruth, the Half Truth and the Not-Recognise-the-Truth.
People are attracted to politics for different reasons: some people are entertainers – attracted to politics to entertain, to charm, to communicate; some are idealists – representing a position, a belief, an ideology, a world view absolutely and with certainty; some are mechanics and engineers – people who enter politics to think, to research, to repair, to solve, to move things forward, to implement, to find and deliver solutions. Many of the best elected politicians have all three: charm, passion and the ability to solve. At any time, a government needs a blend: communication, conviction and getting the job done.
Following Labour’s great crash and their decade of ruinous national mismanagement, the country needs her mechanics and engineers, her innovators. People who enjoy thinking about things differently, in solving problems and in pragmatically delivering solutions. It is the nature of the thinker and the innovator to be open to ideas and solutions, to turn a problem on its head, to take the pieces of the clock apart and put them together again to better effect.
The quality of intellectual curiosity, of delivering something differently, is strong in many of our party’s best thinkers and implementers now and over the years: Lord Freud, Oliver Letwin, Francis Maude, David Willetts, Keith Joseph, Rab Butler, and many, many more. It is not by co-incidence that many find their way to politics alongside or after policy and research work and from finance or technical backgrounds- people who are great thinkers but who are drawn to active political service by the desire to implement, to change, to innovate, to make things better. In a world of “bread and circuses”, someone has to figure out how to make and pay for the bread.
By their nature some of the best thinkers and innovators respond with “yes, but” or “tell me how that might work” and even “I agree it’s a concern, however…”. That makes them easy game for the push question at the fringe meeting and the secret recording. It makes them easy game for the made-up pressure group or artificial company or pretend constituent.
We cannot answer the age of aggressive political techniques by perfection, by constant communications and PR training, by a life lived in fear of the mistake or the spoken word or the mis-heard question or ill-formed reply. We make a grave mistake if the pursuit of political perfection becomes our goal or our response to this shameful style of political abuse. The silver-tongued should not be complacent against this type of attack: even the best protected knight has a chink in the armour; even Achilles had his heel.
The days of the carefully crafted “address to the nation”, the perfect scripted speech, the re-record of the pre-record – those are all long over. This will be the worst-of-the-worst-dirty-tricks election because Labour have nothing to say. They cannot win on their ideas, they cannot hide their economic and social legacy. They can only win by doing us down.
This type of aggressive misrepresentation is a feature of American politics and we must learn from the American response. Take Hillary Clinton, she is confident and strong in responding when she “mis-speaks”. In the UK, it took Tony Blair more than a decade to clear up a “mishearing” by a reporter’s friend about his comments on football. We all say things lacking in care, with emotion, through context of the questions, when we are tired, when we are bored, when we mis-hear or mis-understand, when we are showing off, when we are trying to excite or engage an audience.
Let’s not try to answer this political age by perfection – or rein in our communication, our passion, our openness to share ideas, our interest or our personal expression in a bid to counter these latest dark arts.