Euan McColm: Worst sins of spin are symptoms of party bent on self-destruction

Gordon Brown's spin doctor Damian McBride 'thwarted the ambitions...of a number of senior Labour politicians.' Picture: AFP
Gordon Brown's spin doctor Damian McBride 'thwarted the ambitions...of a number of senior Labour politicians.' Picture: AFP
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EVEN by the low standards of contemporary politics, the lengths to which Damian McBride went in the pursuit of the destruction of others cause the jaw to drop.

In a memoir of his time as spin doctor to Gordon Brown – first at the Treasury and then inside 10 Downing Street – McBride details how, through lies and smears, he thwarted the ambitions, even wrecked the careers, of a number of senior Labour politicians.

Former Home Secretaries Charles Clarke and John Reid and junior health minister Ivan Lewis were among those who fell victim to the Prime Minister’s vicious attack dog, whose book The Power Trip is published this week.

While insisting his boss never instructed his activities, McBride admits to using the most brutal tactics to undermine anybody who might have been perceived as threatening – or even just disloyal – to Brown.

Widely publicised passages from the former adviser’s book confirm the worst suspicions we might harbour about the spin doctor as a peculiarly amoral creature. The modern spin doctor is willing to kill a career without flinching; to use against someone his every human frailty, even as the wretch before him breaks down in pleading tears.

We’ve seen The Thick Of It and it’s basically like that without the jokes.

McBride fully inhabited the cliché. In his favour is his apparent realisation that he behaved deplorably and that his actions had victims either broadly undeserving or entirely innocent.

Labour politicians spent considerable time and energy on Friday insisting that the days of McBride were long gone. Publication of the ex-spinner’s autobiography was nothing more, said shadow cabinet minister Hilary Benn, than a postscript on the past. It was the “rogue spinner” defence. McBride – who lost his job in Downing Street after being caught conspiring to publish, online, lies about Tory politicians – was a one of a kind. Labour would see to it that such behaviour would never again be allowed.

The flaw with Labour’s response is that it fails fully to address the party’s partial responsibility for McBride’s actions. Yes, he’s a grown man and has to live with his own thoughts and deeds, but if we’re willing to consider that he isn’t simply rotten to the core, we can see where problems emerged.

McBride’s lack of control, his rampages through the personal lives of senior politicians, those things weren’t so much the cause of problems for the Labour leadership but the consequence of existing difficulties. A good political spin doctor can only succeed when looking outwards and telling a story. For this to be allowed to take place, the party on whose behalf matters are being spun requires to be disciplined and united.

A spin doctor, working for a supported leader, can devote his or her energies to the positive business of negatively attacking the opposition. But when a party is riven by factions – by energetic and frequently vengeful factions – then what else can the loyal spinner do but in-fight back? McBride may be the most dreadful fellow, but his dreadfulness flourished in a party where knives were being sharpened as the leader’s name was hissed by colleagues.

I should admit to an admiration of the spin doctor. Of the good ones, anyway.

The job – on paper – seems pretty straightforward: the communication of the message of a political party or politician. But, in reality, it’s an incredibly demanding task for which the thanks for successes are few and the price for failures is devastating. Where once political spokespeople might have been expected to deliver comment for a handful of news bulletins, they now must react to constantly rolling TV news, and to social media, where stories can catch fire, going viral in just a few minutes. The pressure to make the right calls is intense.

A good spin doctor must be sympathetic, though unsentimental. There will be times, even in the most disciplined party, when the spokesperson in the shadows will have to deliver a harsh judgement (remember SNP Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson? When he had to quit after heavy snow found systems severely wanting, there were few tears among the officials whose job it was to explain why he had to go and what political objectives might receive full attention thereafter) so a strong constitution is essential.

Perhaps Scotland’s most high profile political spin doctor is the SNP’s Director of Communications, Kevin Pringle, who has worked for Alex Salmond in opposition and in government. Though no longer employed directly by his party leader, Pringle knows Salmond better than any other SNP official. The advantages that stem from this relationship have collided merrily with a remarkable eight-year period of complete party discipline. His job – at which he is very good – is made all the easier by the fact that his leader enjoys the support of all of his senior colleagues. Pringle doesn’t need to see off attackers from within his own party because they don’t exist (until after the referendum, anyway).

Labour politicians who really want to ensure an end to the sort of tactics employed by McBride won’t do so by continuing to inspect his methods. There is nothing to learn there other than that the man behaved abominably and recognition of this fact won’t do a thing. The Labour Party must look a little deeper. McBride was a dysfunctional spin doctor created, or at least encouraged, by a dysfunctional political party.

In Scotland, Johann Lamont’s spinner is a survivor of the Gordon Brown bunker. Former political journalist Paul Sinclair appears to have learned from seeing up close the destructive effects of party infighting. Alongside telling Lamont’s story, he has been instrumental in building bridges between previously estranged colleagues.

That’s the most sensible thing I’ve seen a Labour spin doctor do in a very long time.

Damian McBride may be gone from the political scene but, wherever a party is split and egos are bruised, there will always be the risk of new Damian McBrides.

Twitter: @euanmccolm