Brian Wilson: Conjuring up black arts in politics

NEGATIVE campaigning is too mild a term for the way elections are fought in a social media-savvy world, writes Brian Wilson

Hillary Clinton has taken a battering in the polls as her trustworthiness ratings fell. Picture: Getty

For as long as I can remember, there have been dark warnings about the “Americanisation” of British politics, even if nobody knew exactly what it meant. Vaguely, it used to be about the use of unlimited money to buy votes.

Watching a discussion this week about the developing US presidential campaign, it occurred to me that there is now a very clear shared currency. Calling it “negative campaigning” is too mild and hackneyed. This is the black art of creating a narrative which becomes so powerful as to marginalise all others.

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The trick is to establish a couple of negatives about one’s opponents and repeat them endlessly through every available outlet, but particularly so-called social media, until they become established as facts which are incapable of dispute.

It is an unedifying form of politics and quite a frightening one. But it does not take a high degree of retrospection to appreciate that it is now embedded within our own political culture or that its victims are those who are either too decent or incompetent to reciprocate or respond.

The specific example was Hillary Clinton and her latest poll ratings which have suffered a startling decline. This had nothing much to do with policies or issues but with the crucial tests of character and honesty which her opponents have targeted.

Over a year, her “trustworthiness” rating fell by 22 per cent, almost half of that within the past two months. This is not because of anything she has said or done within that period but, according to the pundits I was listening to, the Republicans have focused relentlessly on two targets – both from the past.

One is the arcane question of why she used a private e-mail address while secretary of state – a question she is perceived not to have answered adequately. The second involves her handling of 
the attack on the US embassy in Libya, also while she was Washington’s equivalent of foreign secretary.

By hammering away at these two matters – and, critically, ignoring all others – the Republicans have succeeded in spreading doubts about Clinton’s trustworthiness which, in due course, will feed into her credibility as a potential president. For her, the dilemma is obvious – either she feeds the fire by responding or else ignores the negatives and speaks of other things. The risk is that, eventually, nobody will be listening.

These are early days and the Republicans’ problem is that they do not have a credible candidate. The front-runner is Jeb Bush and he has perception problems of his own – not least being too close to his brother. But meantime, they have scored a significant hit by changing the Hillary narrative, from coronation to credibility. And then the polls become the story.

I read this week a purportedly “insider” account of Labour’s doomed general election campaign. The thrust of it was that for the first couple of weeks, it went surprisingly well while the Tories flailed around looking for the killer message that would strike fear into the hearts of swing voters.

The critical moment was when one landed in their grateful laps. It was that a minority Labour government would be held to ransom by the SNP, as boasted of by the latter, and when this prospect was run past focus groups, responses were off the political Richter scale.

It became the principle theme of the Tory campaign. They persuaded the broadcasters that it was indeed the story on which to lead every news bulletin. Their loyal press barons gleefully weighed in. Every Tory appearance, interview or tweet carried the same message. It was relentless.

Labour, having failed to spot the danger and close it down, did not have a clue about how to respond. Once this was established as the only question worth talking about in the campaign, every feckless attempt to address it only contributed to digging a deeper hole.

In Scotland, the SNP ran a variation on the theme. They were the guarantors of Labour’s conscience. And furthermore, Labour had voted with the Tories to support £30 billion of cuts – a complete lie, as is now acknowledged, but one repeated so often that even Labour candidates gave up trying to dispute it. They were bemused by the frequency with which these messages were fed back to them on doorsteps, to the exclusion of all else.

So is politics now to be determined by who is smartest and richest in communicating negative messages, true or false, about opponents? I wouldn’t bet against it. To some extent, it has always been part of the mix. But the disciplined use of social media to communicate relentless negatives from a million different directions creates a vastly enhanced potential for those who can harness it without scruple.

Which takes me on to a word about Charles Kennedy, the antithesis of the kind of politics I am describing and who, like many others, was left floundering in the face of them. I had just arrived in New York when texts in the middle of my night alerted me to the grim news of his death.

We had been in touch quite a lot in recent months for various reasons. There is something quite eerie about looking at one’s phone and seeing the trail of texts from a friend who has now departed but was so recently very much alive, engaged and succinct in the expression of his views.

It seems, even from this distance, that there has been some distasteful speculation about Charles’ views on last year’s referendum campaign and his willingness to be “reconciled” to an independent Scotland. So let me quote just a couple of these texts, the first after a televised debate from Inverness last August: “BBC debate last night was dispiriting – not Danny’s local unpopularity in some quarters but awful anti everything/everyone Nat attitudes. God help us if they won”.

Subsequently, he was equally dispirited by some pretty nasty campaigning against him. I asked if it ever occurred to him that there “might be a disproportionate number of deeply unpleasant people in Scotland these days”. Charles replied: “It certainly has of late. Perhaps it takes the Union to keep them in their boxes! Cheers!”

Cheers, indeed, Charles – a good man and decent politician from a better, simpler age.