Of lynch-mobs and witch-hunts

How powerful people see opposition.

The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has dismissed those scrutinizing his colleagues Jeremy Hunt and Baroness Warsi as a “lynch-mob”.   Not long ago, a well-known tabloid journalist attacked those investigating newsroom excesses as conducting a “witch-hunt”.

Of course, what is going on is nothing like a lynch-mob or a witch-hunt.  

Really, it is not.  

There are no terrified vulnerable people being persued down country lanes by vigilantes or hooligans with cruel violence on their mind.  There are no ropes thrown over branches nor any stakes placed on bonfires.   There is no bloodshed.    

Indeed, such stale but extreme language tells you a great deal about the mentalities of  those who employ it.  So unused are certain people of not getting their own way - either individually  or as a class - that they can think only in terms of mobs and witch-hunters when the prospect is raised of any genuine but unwanted accountability.  

So, as usual, the most revealing thing about a powerful man or woman is how they view those who can check them.  

For them, the sound of awkward questions being asked is the noise of breaking glass.

One should not be surprised by their responses.  

Yes, politicians from time to time may lose office; but the greater number of those who exercise actual power - civil servants, judges, police officers, and media proprietors and editors  - will be quite untouched by mere elections.  

They are settled in and do not like the “instability” of being confronted and challenged.  

For a citizen to even directly tell a Permanent Secretary, a High Court judge, a Chief Constable, or the owner of a tabloid, that they may be wrong and culpable and should answer questions is almost unthinkable as any practical matter.  

Such things do not happen, and there are various means in place to stop such impudence from occurring. 

As we observe the Queen’s diamond jubilee, it is clear that the United Kingdom has fashioned a polity where many individuals who exercise power never are really challenged.  

 
Tory politicians: off to the gallows? Photo: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.