Ed Miliband is too good at politics – he can’t stop playing the game

Too often, it feels as though the Labour leader has so assiduously studied the rules of political communication that he can’t forget them.

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Emily Thornberry’s resignation was the moment when extreme political correctness morphed from a left-wing obsession into one shared by right-wingers. It was also the moment we went full Orwell. Apparently it’s no longer enough to jump on every word a politician utters; now we jump all over their thoughts too.

This is a strange time. In July the Labour leader made a speech bemoaning the superficiality of politics; its focus on image over substance. Then on Thursday, he fired his shadow attorney-general for something that people on Twitter said that she thought about an image. The day after he found himself telling an interviewer that whenever he sees a white van he feels “respect”.

For all the talk, ever since his leadership campaign, of wanting to do politics differently, Ed Miliband plays the game like the political pro he is. The stock criticism of him is that he isn’t very good at politics, but there’s a sense in which he’s too good at it. It’s as if he has so assiduously studied the rules of political communication that he can’t forget them.

The rules are there to be broken, however, because at the moment they’re breaking us. There is no chance this country will get the politicians it wants until it cuts the politicians it has a bit of slack. Right now, our treatment of the people that govern us is so brutal and unforgiving that we’re forcing them to be dishonest. When you feel that you’re under attack no matter what you say, you resort to obfuscation and dishonesty. It’s the only way to survive. “The weak cannot be sincere”, said Francois de La Rochefoucauld.

Victoria Talwar is a psychologist at McGill University in Canada. A few years ago she came across a unique opportunity to test the way that lying behaviour responds to different rules. She was introduced to two schools in West Africa a few miles apart, with similar intakes but very different disciplinary regimes. One of them  - we’ll call it School A - was strict but run more or less according to Western norms - if you broke the rules you got a detention or extra homework.

The other - School B - had a draconian regime of corporal punishment, inherited from the French Catholic nuns that founded it. If the kids were deemed to have done anything wrong - including and especially lying - they were beaten. Talwar refers to it as “a punitive environment”. She got permission from both schools to carry out an experiment with their pupils to test their propensity for lying.

The experiment she ran is known as The Peeking Game. Here’s how it works. The child is asked to sit facing the wall. Behind him, the experimenter brings out a series of toys that make a noise and the child has to guess from the noise which kind of toy it is. If they get it right they win the toy. The first couple are pretty easy - a fire engine making a fire engine noise, for instance. The third is made impossible to get. Talwar brings out a toy football, and opens up a greeting card that plays a tinny tune. The child can’t possibly guess what the toy is from the noise.

Before the child can say anything at all, the experimenter says, “I need to take a quick call outside, I’ll be back in a minute. Have a think. Whatever you do, don’t peek.’”Of course, just about every child peeks. And when the experimenter comes back, the child invariably “guesses” the right answer. The question is, do they lie when the experimenter says, “Did you peek?”

This experiment has been run many times, and about 60 per cent of three and four-year-olds lie in answer to this question. This number goes up with age. It’s not just whether the children lie that’s interesting, but how well they lie. When very young kids are challenged on their lie by the experimenter - “If you didn’t peek, how did you guess?” - many of them fold immediately and say, “I looked”. Others maintain the lie, come up with an explanation and deliver it with a straight face.

When Talwar reviewed the tapes of her experiments at the two schools, what she found surprised her. The kids from School A lied at about the same rate and in the same way to kids from Western schools. The kids from School B, however - the punitive environment - were in a different league. They all lied, without exception, and they did so brilliantly, displaying real creativity in the stories they came up with, and mastery of their delivery. It turned out that by attempting to eradicate lying, School B had become a factory for producing highly proficient little liars.

British politics is now something like a punitive environment. We punish politicians for dishonesty. But we also punish them for telling the truth. No party leader is being remotely honest about the scale of cuts that will take place after the next election. They’re in a competition to see who can lie to us most persuasively, because they know that the first one to tell the truth will get pulverised by a cynical press and by voters who act like children angry at being told they can’t have dessert.

Since our rulers know that whatever they say they’ll be accused of dishonesty then, like the pupils from School B, they try and say whatever it is they think we want to hear. Except that most of them aren’t as skilled at lying as the kids in School B. That’s why they often end up sounding so painfully inauthentic. It’s why they claim to feel surges of emotion at the sight of white vans, or tell us unbelievable stories about some bloke they supposedly met in a park. If we really want more honest politicians, we’ll have to start treating them like grown-ups, and acting like grown-ups ourselves.

The larger point here, though, is that perhaps the reason we have politicians in the first place is to allow us a margin of dishonesty in our dealings with each other. The term “politician” or “politique” was first used widely in its modern sense in sixteenth and seventeenth century France, where it was applied to those who were trying to mediate between warring Catholic and Protestant tribes, who were tearing each other apart in the name of Truth.

The politiques were the only ones saying, you know what, chaps, maybe “truth” isn’t the most important thing here. Isn’t it more important that we find a way to get along without killing each other? If that means a few fudges, evasions and deceptions - allowing different people to believe different things - then isn’t a price worth paying?

They were despised for it, of course. Truth has all the best tunes. But they were right.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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