Politics has always been a dirty game. Political capital is based on power over competitors and support from the electorate, achieved seemingly by any means necessary. More often than not, the net result is that political discourse descends into pointing out the failures of an opponent, without presenting a reasoned, superior alternative.
The failings of an opponent can take many forms. Many are not even political in nature, but are focused on the youthful mistakes of student life, or the failings of human relationships to which we are all vulnerable. These are the most base of attacks. Others potential mistakes to exploit range widely, from matters that barely impact on the political processes of this country, to issues that could sway parliamentary voting.
One of the most shameful methods of gaining the upper hand over ones opponent, however, is to exploit occasions when that opponent admits they made a mistake. All too often, when a party is forced to change direction, or realises a policy lacks popular support they are mocked for u-turning by opponents and the media alike. Generally this happens to the party in government, as they have greater scope for testing policies, however opposition parties by no means escape the problem. Regardless of who is involved, we seem to take the view that U-turns are a bad thing – a sign that party leadership or policy is weak.
Of course, if a party is forced to back down on a key policy, it may indeed be a sign that said policy was flawed, or that the party is in turmoil, and cannot command a majority in parliament. It is a significant sign of weakness. Yet that does not mean it ought to be exploited in a bid to score points towards the next election.
There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, as citizens of a healthy, free democracy, we should all seek to live up to a certain British stereotype – sportsmanship. We should strive to be gracious in victory and accepting in defeat. It is simply good manners not to kick a man when he is down. If the policy of one’s opponent has been defeated or proven to fail in operation, that serves as tacit support for one’s own view-point. It is entirely legitimate to advocate for the alternative, extolling its virtues to the public and to the opponent, however this can be done without resorting to mockery. Indeed, where a full u-turn has occurred, not only has the opposition view been weighed, measured and found wanting, those who previously supported it have actively moved to support the alternative. These twin victories should be enough for any man, without harping on about the past failings of the opposition. Politics should illuminate the way forward, rather than casting light on the past.
Furthermore, there is good reason for civil society to view u-turns in a positive light. If a government policy has been dramatically reversed, especially due to public and opposition pressure, this indicates that the government is listening to external voices, considering them, and responding in a measured, informed way. A government which is willing to perform a volte-face is surely one which should be praised for listening to the electorate and rising above partisan politics to act for the common weal. Admissions of mistakes should be praised by a public which wants accountable leadership.
At least, that is what should happen, but alas the reality is frequently very different. U-turns are routinely condemned by the opposition, the media and the general public alike. Rather than being treated as a sign that government is responsive to the needs of the electorate, and is willing to admit its mistakes, it is instead an indicator of a party which is not fit to govern, or doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the way, our priorities became deeply skewed.
Which leads me to the recent debate on Tax Credits. This is an issue where the government has faced a severe challenge. Civil society groups and opposition MPs have called on the government to reconsider their position, especially regarding the rate of change. The government has initially refused, but the House of Lords’ amendment calling for further consultation will leave the government with no other option but to reconsider its policy, hopefully in the context of extended consultation. The opposition could be smug about it, and they may still be so, depending on what steps the government takes next, but as of yet this has not been the case. For now, the opposition deserves congratulation for their pledge that they will support the government, should they change their policy. They are acting generously and putting aside partisan interests in favour of the common weal. This is how politics should be.