We don’t need to resort to distortion to win votes and promote our cause - David Blunkett
It's taken me a very long time to come to the conclusion that I'd better get into the 21st century so that I can respond to the extraordinary start of a prolonged election campaign, where existing policies are presented as new; historic action is recycled as a new initiative and where steps taken years ago are announced, with the fanfare of trumpets, that the previous government did nothing.
In all such cases, as I outline, this is entirely untrue. Just take MP for North East Derbyshire and junior minister Lee Rowley’s recent announcements in relation to access to social housing. He outlined supposedly new measures which would establish whether an individual had been resident in an area long enough to be eligible for housing. But such measures already exist in the form of the Habitual Residence Test. This was first introduced in 1994 to prevent people claiming benefits whilst on holiday in the UK, but updated in 2004 to establish whether they have a “right to reside”.
Then, just last week, the Policing Minister Chris Philp claimed that no government before 2010 had introduced measures to reduce knife crime. When, in fact, I myself , as Home Secretary, announced measures in 2004 which became law in 2006 in the form of the Violent Crime Reduction Act. This included, amongst many other initiatives, adding new categories of knives being used in crime to the list of banned offensive weapons and developing local crime reduction and enforcement strategies to deal with the carrying of knives.
The other twist is a deliberate sleight of hand, where additional money is promised only to be followed by a massive withdrawal of cash – affecting exactly the same group of people, or in this case, the work of local authorities – as illustrated by my tweet questioning whether the government’s recently announced uplift of £600m for upper- tier councils would actually be a devastatingly poor substitute for a renewal of the £1bn allocated for the Household Support Fund in the current year. This fund has provided critical financial support for the most vulnerable, but there has been no word of a renewal for the next financial year.
People need to debate real differences, rather than making up facts. And that there is some collective memory, both within political parties, and for that matter the civil service. Years ago, in fighting the 1997 election, the Labour Party created a “Rebuttal unit” which, prior to the advent of social media, responded to press and broadcast pronouncements in a way that set the record straight. Although it might seem easier to do so through new technology, the reality is that someone has to have some recollection of what came before and access to sufficiently accurate information to shoot down a lie before it “gets its boots on”, and is halfway around the world.
Given the very real and genuine worries about interference in our general election from malign forces outside the country, it is surely beholden on politicians of whatever persuasion not to help them in peddling untruths by indulging in it themselves.
There are genuine divides both in terms of ideology and past performance for any campaign to be robust, as well as educative. We really don’t need to resort to distortion to win votes and promote our cause.
Not only do we need to tell the truth, but we need to treat each other in a very different way, highlighting genuine disagreements through rational dialogue, rather than allowing people to preach hate. I consider it to be a very real tragedy when a serving minister decides that he has to stand down because of intimidation and abuse, as I outlined in my tweet when Conservative Justice Minister, Mike Freer, did just that. I said: “Time to teach tolerance and genuine disagreement through rational dialogue in schools and colleges, but above all, to ask the perpetrators a simple question: "how can you preach peace whilst you practice hatred"?
This is not just about one political party, although being the governing administration places much bigger obligations on you to engage positively, to set an example and with the benefit of having the massive resources of the civil service behind you.
The civil service, as a recent cross-party commission pointed out, should be held to account if they find themselves putting out material, including press releases, which are substantially propagandising party-political material that is not “fact checked". This has become, as the authors of the report indicated 10 days ago, an all too common practice.
Some readers may recall last year that when my own Party put out a tweet which I believed attacked Rishi Sunak personally rather than his Party's performance and policy, I vigorously protested, publicly believing, as I still do, that my Party is better than this.
Thankfully, there's not been a repeat and I hope, as we come towards the final furlong of the general election, we will try and conduct ourselves in a way that increases respect and trust in politics and public life.
David Blunkett is a Labour Party politician and served as the MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough.