Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 20 February 2009

Debased Debate

Frank Field has a very interesting comment piece in The Times today where he sets out what he thinks is wrong with the welfare system in this country. He has some thought provoking (and politically provcative) ideas which I suspect will chime with the opinions of many in this country. He is a very well respected MP and is clearly very passionate about this subject.

However what I want to focus on is something tangentially related to this that consistently bugs me about politcal debate in this country. I suppose the quickest way I can sum it up is that the simplest argument with the clearest message tends to win the day. Anything more nuanced or complex that cannot be condensed into a simple one sentence soundbite struggles to be heard.

In his article, Field is corruscating about the New Deal which Labour brought in in 1997 to try and reduce youth unemployment. He explains how it has basically been an expensive failure and £75 billion has been spent without much effect. I don't want to get into the details of this, I trust Field's figures as an acknowledged expert by all sides in this area. What I want to mention is how over the last 12 years, Labour politicians from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown down have used the New Deal as a stick with which to beat the opposition parties. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Labour MPs say something like "We introduced the New Deal which my opponent voted against". It is as if by definition their policy must have been the right thing to do and any opposition to it is mean spirited and means that their opponents are against reducing youth unemployment. It is an easy (and cheap) soundbite which doubtless over the years has helped to paint opponents of the New Deal as in the wrong, even though the main objection has always been that it will not work. The opponents of it have now basically been proved right.

I have seen this sort of thing happen thousands of times over the years. In fact Sarah Teather did it last night on Question Time to Tony McNulty when she mentioned that Labour had voted against transparency for expenses. Now I am in a difficult position here as I think Labour were definitely wrong to vote against this but McNulty did actually have a reasonable defence which he tried to articulate but it was more complicated that Teather's position, hence it got lost and he just looked shifty.

Another example of this is in the debate around drugs in this country. The simple argument is: Drugs kill people, especially the young and therefore they should be banned. The first part is absolutely true, they do kill people. However the simplistic argument does not engage with the plethora of nuance and consequences of the "war on drugs" which has palpably failed by any yardstick you care to use. The simple argument wins the day, over and over again.

In his book Bad Science, Ben Goldacre says that he would like his catchphrase to be "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that.". I think this would be an excellent catchphrase to be used more often in political as well as scientific debate. Let's not take the public for fools. Most people can understand complex arguments as long as all the information is given. Instead of squeezing things into 15 second soundbites, we should be trying to engage with arguments properly. This is one area where blogging is starting to change the nature of political debate and I am hopeful that this will continue in the right direction.

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