Deception, Deflection and Disruption: the new rules of political communication
This is a post I have been meaning to write for at least 18 months. When first conceived it was in part a prediction. Recent events have conspired to make that prediction a reality, which has encouraged me to get it out there. It is post about the three Ds of modern political communication: Deception, Deflection and Disruption.
It all started with Deception. Many people have accused UK Prime Minister Tony Blair of being a liar. In truth, he was far too clever to deserve this label. Calling Tony Blair a liar is a bit like calling a successful poker player a liar. What Tony Blair and a successful poker player have in common is that the practice of deceit is fundamental to their success. Indeed the whole New Labour project was built upon deception. There was, of course, the grand deception designed to create support or justification for the Iraq war but at a more prosaic level there was the deception that New Labour was a party that was going to deliver on any of its promises, when in fact all they were doing was kicking the can down the road – just another variant of TINA (There Is No Alternative) politics. Labour confused being a party of opposition with being a party in opposition, a problem which exists to this day – but that is another story.
The Conservative-lead government of David Cameron learned a lot from New Labour. They didn’t use deception to disguise a lack of any policies or principles, rather they used it to disguise the ideology underpinning their policies. The Big Society was a case in point. Many people see David Cameron’s Big Society as a muddle-headed failure and its subsequent dismissal from the ‘narrative’ shortly after coming into office as proof of that. On the contrary, the Big Society was a brilliant success. It was never intended to last, it was always just a piece of election stagecraft.
The Big Society was actually a cover story for the privatisation of the State, legitimising the idea that government can withdraw from its responsibilities to manage public services and instead turn these into profit-making opportunities and hand these over to private companies and the ‘free’ market. Of course you could never admit to this in public because if you did, you would never get elected, so an alterative (alt) narrative was required. Cameron and his team were well aware of the fact that the previous Tory government had foundered on being seen as the ‘nasty party’ that was all about selfish individualism. In particular, the idea expressed by Margaret Thatcher that there was no such thing as society had come to represent everything he knew he had to distance himself from. Voters realised there was such a thing as society, because they could see it starting to fray all around them. What better way to address this by stating that you not only believed in society, you wanted to create a Really Big One.
The Big Society had an additional benefit in that it sucked-in support from left-of-centre politics. Charities, third-sector organisations and NGOs all got excited by this idea, mostly because they could smell the money that this approach seemed to imply would flow to them. This excitement was short-lived. Once in power it was clear that the money was going to the big private sector contractors that have established an alternative (alt) Whitehall in Victoria Street, another road leading to the seat of government in Westminster. “The problem with charities is that they have become too dependent on the State” was the cold retort of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maud as he announced cuts, rather than more money, to those charities responsible for delivering state-funded projects. It wasn’t so much the Big Society as the Big Business Society.
Things then progressed to deflection. The global financial crash of 2008 was a rather inconvenient refutation to belief in economic neo-liberalism and the supremacy of the free market. Here was a catastrophic failure of that ideology, due in part to the fact that loosely regulated ‘free’ markets can very easily be manipulated and also the tendency such markets have to cultivate greed and become little more than frameworks to preserve and enhance the interests of the rich and powerful. There was also the slight problem that, after more than 20 years of pursuing this ideology by governments of both sides of the supposed political divide (ref. TINA politics), things were starting to get a little ragged. Increasing inequality was becoming obvious, public services were in a bad way, social care had become little more than a profit-making opportunity – as had tertiary education, the cherished National Health Service was heading the same way and manufacturing industry was in decline due to the long-absence of any sort of industrial strategy since the only strategy in town was to hand everything over to the market and let that work out what to do.
The blame needed to be shifted and the Cameron government decided to promote the idea that the state of the public finances bequeathed them by the previous Labour government was in fact the cause of problem. This not only shifted the blame, but also legitimised a renewed assault on public services and the State under the guise of an austerity programme. A double-win.
I don’t think the Tories initially believed they could get away with this, but due to the total aversion of the Labour Party in opposition to the concept of offering-up any opposition, they found this ‘narrative’ actually stuck. Thus emboldened, they began a programme of mass deflection – blaming the state of the NHS on doctors/nurses/management/bureaucracy, the state of education on poorly performing teachers or local authorities, the welfare bill on benefits cheats, immigrants or just poor people generally. Everyone was to blame, except government or the fundamentalist free-market ideology that underpinned everything that successive governments had been doing.
This brings us to Disruption, where things get much more prescient, not to say scary. The master of disruption is Vladimir Putin and in particular his orchestrator of confusion, Vladislav Surkov. Putin / Surkov realised that you don’t attack your opposition by trying to suppress it, what you do is deflate its ability to operate by undermining its attempts to create any solid foundations. Thus Putin will erode human rights in Russia, while funding the human rights organisations who then subsequently criticise him. The result is confusion: people just don’t know what to think or who to believe. There are thus no certainties upon which to build beliefs or ideas which might challenge the status quo. This is an approach used to great effect domestically, but it has also been extended into Russia’s foreign policy – which at times seems to have no agenda other than to be as disruptive as possible in order to confuse opponents and keep everyone on the back foot.
It is this which explains the apparently bizarre connection between Russia and Donald Trump. There is an enormous level of admiration held by the elements in the Trump administration lead by Steve Bannon (and probably by Trump himself) for how Vladimir Putin operates. Putin has been able to disable almost all the institutions of the state associated with the maintenance of democracy, turning Russia into a country that is primarily structured to preserve and enhance the interests of a super-rich elite (this is the bit that Bannon likes). Yet he has been able to do this while maintaining the fig leaf of democratic consent based upon creating genuine public support for a populist, strong, nationalistic leader (this is the bit that Trump likes). Russia is effectively Breitbart World made real. It also bears a chilling similarity to the world of George Orwell’s 1984 with its newspeak, revision and reversal of history and state of perpetual warfare against largely unseen enemies without and within.
I would venture to suggest that the Cameron government and its chief spin doctor Lynton Crosby, experimented with disruption politics in its latter days. Witness the last Conservative Party Conference before Cameron’s resignation. Here, while positioning the Conservative Party as the party of working people, the government announced the scrapping of working tax credits – an initiative that all the independent experts pronounced would have the greatest negative impact on precisely those people the government was pledging its support to. Words and actions in total contradiction – was this incompetence or calculated disruption? We shall never know. What we do know however, is that it didn’t work, since government as forced to withdraw its changes to working tax credits in the face of public opposition.
We also need to know that we are entering an age of politics characterised by the practice of deception, deflection and disruption. This is a world within which people like Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Wilders, Le Penn and Farage can flourish. It is not so much a world of fake news, as fake politics and fake democracy. Rather than get caught-up in, and thus fall victim to, its daily vortex of manufactured madness, it is important that those who study and report upon these things remain focused on exposing its highly organised, but often hidden, dynamics.