Mud-slinging, Sleaze and the British Political Process

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“All political parties are partisan rather than inclusive organisations, and all are based on clientelism.”


Politics is partly an exercise in mud-slinging, or the strategic application of insults and accusations that are intended to damage or undermine reputations. Mud-slinging is an unwelcome feature of British politics.

One of the Labour Party’s current strategies is based on projecting a consistent narrative that there is a long-term pattern of government “sleaze”. Labour is searching for any opportunity to enhance the media debate on “sleaze” and to scatter as much mud as possible. This strategy is a continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 vow to clean up politics by ensuring that “politics should work for the millions, not the millionaires”.

There are many paradoxes at the centre of all democratic systems. Political parties are more interested in winning elections rather than in developing and applying an inclusive approach based on creating better outcomes for all people. All political parties are partisan rather than inclusive organisations, and all are based on clientelism.

The problem with Labour’s emphasis on “calling out sleaze” at the heart of government is that “sleaze”, defined as clientelism, is at the heart of all political parties. The challenge is to identify appropriate forms of clientelism and inappropriate forms. An inappropriate form would require the identification of some form of distortion that was not in the national interest.

The media and political debate regarding David Cameron and Greensill Capital, and Sir James Dyson and ventilators, are classic examples of mud-slinging based on playing individuals to achieve some political objective. The Dyson “sleaze” story is one in which nothing really happened apart from a leak of private messages. This incident is an example of agility in the everyday enactment of government policy to develop solutions that might save lives during an exceptional crisis. Governments must be agile, but agility provides many excellent opportunities for mud-slinging by opposition parties and journalists. Rules were evidently broken; rule-breaking can be deliberately misinterpreted as examples of sleaze. And, yet agility is critical during a crisis.

Calling out examples of government agility as sleaze represents a Labour strategy to politicise agility. This is unfortunate. These examples of agility may be benign representing attempts by a government to produce better outcomes during a crisis. There is the paradox of doubt and politics. Labour does not need to prove that government sleaze exists as all that is required is to create doubt; doubt is sufficient to shift the political debate without requiring any evidence.

There needs to be a more balanced account of the politics of sleaze. The current debate is about lobbying defined as inappropriate contacts between individuals, company representatives, and ministers, MPs, or officials. Thus, an individual might have an unfair advantage as they are able to text a minister directly. Nevertheless, this ability does not imply that they are able to alter outcomes. Any such distortion would need to be proven case-by-case.

The partisan nature of the democratic political process results in major tensions. It is impossible to isolate politicians and officials from external contacts and influences. These external influences include the media. Journalists act as gatekeepers by excluding and including individuals and organisations from media debate. The media debate may influence political outcomes; journalism is another form of lobbying.

A balanced account of the calling out sleaze campaign would have to highlight the role that the 12 affiliated trade unions play in shaping Labour Party policies and strategies. The difficulty is that this shaping represents the interests of another minority rather than the interests of all people living in the UK.

Every time a politician mentions ‘sleaze’, I think of the real problem that sits at the centre of the UK political system. This is how to develop a political system in which all voices are treated equally? Mud-slinging about government sleaze might be good party politics, but it is bad national politics as it hides a much more serious problem that cuts across the UK political ecosystem. It is time to shift the sleaze debate away from naming and shaming one party to developing a more transparent and inclusive form of politics.