Remember that bus?
If there’s one lesson most of us should have learned by now, it’s how that message on ‘the bus’ worked.
For those at the back, a quick recap. It was never a serious claim. It was a crafty move to amplify a talking point about how much EU membership was costing Britain, sneakily connected to a hint that leaving would be great news for our beloved and financially beleaguered health service.
It worked brilliantly because it got us lots of us really mad. This meant that we kept talking about it.
In turn, that created a constant background noise about ‘the bus’ that cemented a vague impression in many less engaged people that membership of the EU is ‘expensive’. There was also the killer bonus of hopes for a future cash bonanza for the NHS if we left. It wasn’t strictly a lie. It was a smart bit of manipulation.
I fell for it too, at the time. I was among those who invested inordinate amounts of energy into arguing — and sharing — all ‘the facts’ about what horseshit it was.
We were literally doing the work of Vote Leave for them, every time we pointed out that it was bollocks.
This was us (including me), patiently showing everyone how wrong Vote Leave was. Aww, how sweet…
Now there’s a new bus in town. And the same thing is happening again.
This time another apparently bogus claim is being relentlessly amplified online.
Again, intelligent, well-intentioned, properly informed, frustrated people — like those of us who objected to the bus — are being manipulated into spreading a vague impression about something. By constantly denying it.
There’s an adage, variously attributed but best known as a quote from Ronald Reagan.
“If you’re explaining, you’re losing”
It’s true. The moment you sucker for an attack by arguing back, you’re usually going to appear defensive. It’s just how this stuff works. The right seems to have internalised this principle most effectively and continues to deploy it to great effect.
Remember how the hard right wing activist Isabel Oakeshott bulldozed Diane Abbott on BBC Question Time recently? Abbott was straight on the back foot while Oakeshott peddled her myth about Labour’s “miles behind” position in the polls. Oakeshott knew it was rubbish, Abbott knew it was rubbish but how do you think it looked to a casual observer? (Leave aside the role of the chair in taking the wrong side, in this example. It’s covered in my post about the incident here). The point is that the stridency and confidence of the attack often tends to carry the moment.
That’s why the bus worked. It was so in your face, so brazenly dishonest (like Oakeshott) there was no real answer.
That’s what’s going on with the level of noise about Labour’s allegedly special relationship with antisemitism. Despite the absence of serious data-based evidence that public Labour figures and supporters are any more antisemitic than those connected with other parties, there are a number of high profile voices promoting the idea that they are.
Some of these voices appear, whenever I look at them online, to be intentionally provoking anger and fear. They seem curiously uninterested in right wing antisemitism. And also oddly cavalier about the effect their narrative is likely to have on the mood of Jewish people in Britain, getting on with their lives against a background of ever more lurid claims about an ‘existential threat’ posed by a Labour government.
They look, to me, quite a lot like the bus. The claim they’re promoting is largely unsubstantiated but is seeping into the public consciousness by endless repetition, defensive explanations or rebuttals and get-nowhere ‘debates’.
Having read as much background on this as I can stomach for a while, it seems to me that antisemitism really does exist in British society, alongside racism of all kinds. It is never excusable and is best called out every time, from a zero-tolerance position. No pasaran.
But I’ve also concluded that our energy is better invested in doing that than endlessly rebutting the claim that the Labour Party — or its leadership — is uniquely antisemitic.
Like the bogus Brexit NHS dividend that was never really going to be diverted from the EU to the NHS, the point of the antisemitism narrative appears to be to get you to talk about it. So that you amplify the supposed problem, through good-faith rebuttal.
Then voters, who are less engaged in the minutiae of current affairs analysis, can’t help noticing a faint background noise from which keep emerging the words ‘antisemitic’ and ‘Labour’.
Arguing about it is explaining. Explaining is losing.
Publishing long, detailed think pieces about it may feel good, but you might as well be telling everyone ‘whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant’.
Sometimes the answer to a political problem is just better communications. And better communications sometimes means not biting.