Opinion: ‘It always centres on truth in politics’

Councillor Shaz Nawaz, Labour Group leader on Peterborough City Council, writes...
Social media.Social media.
Social media.

Recently, councillor David Seaton was forced to apologise to a member of the Labour Group, councillor Dr Shabina Qayyum, for having spread false and derogatory allegations about her via social media. He publicly stated he was wrong and paid both damages and costs.

The incident is now closed.

However, there is a broader point to be derived from this. We are living in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. What is first stated as an allegation can flow through the bloodstream of social media, and then be mistakenly ingested as a fact. Then those who are inclined to believe these untruths shout them as loudly as possible. The general electorate, who may not have the time nor the inclination to go fact checking, may take what began as a falsehood as being an accurate account of what happened. Denials, particularly on the internet, often carry an air of suspicion: this is nothing new, this instinct dates from the Profumo scandal and Mandy Rice-Davies saying, “He would say that, wouldn’t he”.

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I have a note of caution for the Conservatives. Trying to stay atop a tide of untruths is like riding a tiger: there is no guarantee that the tiger won’t devour you in the process. Furthermore, severe damage can be done as the animal thrashes around.

Democracy doesn’t work unless we operate from a shared set of facts. For example, let’s say that there is an issue with unemployment. The Labour remedy might be building more infrastructure to add jobs and increase the nation’s economic growth capacity; the Conservatives’ proposal might be to cut taxes. Whatever the remedy, the diagnosis is not wished or shouted away. We are precisely in a territory where basic fact is being eroded. Politics becomes more like football fans shouting at each other; some seem keen to echo Millwall and proclaim, “Nobody likes us, and we don’t care”. Fact and logic go out the window: politics becomes a matter of with which tribe one identifies.

However, this is not the goal of politics: it is a means to achieve a better end for constituents. We are here to ensure that businesses grow, people are employed, roads are fixed, bins are collected, crime is kept at bay, and the city is a pleasant place to live. The fog of “alternative facts” may seem like a weapon, but in the end, it pushes politics further away from achieving the ends for which it has been designed.

Then we wonder why people lose faith in democracy’s ability to achieve anything useful. It is no wonder that some countries have drifted into authoritarianism without too much protest: people got sick of the shouting and the lack of delivery.

In the case of Dr Qayyum, justice has been done.

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The law was there to make sure truth and facts won the day. Are we so sure that if our politics continue to be barraged by “fake news” that this will be so? All untruths dissolve in the end: sometimes the truth can set you free. Sometimes it can be painful. Either way, it has to be faced into: we in the Labour Group are committed to doing this.