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‘We Can Stop Lying in Politics – But Will a New Government Pay Attention to the Public’s Demand for Honesty?

At this moment in history, lying can no longer be dismissed as an unpleasant by-product of  the political game – and we can do something about it, writes Compassion in Politics’ co-founder

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in February 2024. Photo: Liam McBurney/Alamy

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Lying works. Whether it’s Rishi Sunak’s ‘Labour will cost you £2,000 in extra tax’ claim or Boris Johnson’s ‘£350 million for the NHS’, once the mud of deception has been slung, enough of it sticks to make it worth the fallout. 

If lying didn’t work, Sunak would have corrected the record instantly. Instead, he has taken every opportunity to repeat the tax claim and stand by the lie. No matter that the Office for Statistic Regulation or the civil service have decried its use – the deception has delivered, the figure is neatly lodged in our heads, and every new august rebuttal merely creates an opportunity for the lie to be repeated anew.  

Contrast this with Sunak’s relatively swift apology for the D-Day debacle. That was a story that didn’t serve him and a swiftish apology, he hoped, would dampen its flames. But, the longer the £2,000 tax story runs, the better.

These lies are akin to what psychologists call the ‘Pink Elephant Paradox’. When instructed not to think of a pink elephant, it is all but impossible not to think of a pink elephant. Knowing that the elephant doesn’t exist doesn’t stop the image from lodging in our brains. So, the more opportunities Sunak gets to repeat his skewed if not fictional figure, the greater the chance of it sticking.

While lying, like crime, pays, it will continue unabated. The incentives must be changed. 

When Compassion in Politics polled the public about the thing they most wanted changed about the culture of British politics, the overwhelming response was the lack of honesty. And yet, the litany of lies – from both the major parties – continues.  

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The Lilliputian regulations designed to protect the public from unscrupulous politicians when Parliament is sitting have also manifestly failed.

We have a system dependent on the ‘gentlemanly’ observance of the Nolan Principles when that ship, if it ever existed, has well and truly sailed.

We have a Ministerial Code, which a government with a large majority can ignore.

We have an ‘Independent’ Advisor on Ministers’ Interests who is only able to open an investigation at the behest of the Prime Minister, who can also ignore their recommendations.

And we have perhaps the biggest absurdity of all in the rules that govern parliamentary debate, whereby a liar may lie but may not be called out for it – with the Alice in Wonderland, topsy-turvy result being that MPs Dawn Butler and Ian Blackford were obliged to leave the House of Commons for calling Boris Johnson a liar, while he remained.

Exceptionalism, rule-breaking, dishonesty flourish in a culture that sees itself as too complex to be governed by the rules that the rest of society is obliged to live by.

It is clear that our voluntary codes don’t work. Putting them on a statutory footing, which the Labour Party has indicated it will do, should help the situation when Parliament is sitting, but this won’t affect what politicians propagate online, blazoned on buses or broadcast on air.

Our slide into a post-truth era has alarming implications for us all. When the cocktail of hate and fantasy offered by the toxic politics of the far-right becomes more appealing than factual reality, it is time for decisive action. Reluctant tolerance of deception becomes complicity. Let what is happening across the Atlantic act as an impetus to action.

So, what can be done? Quite a lot actually.

Although, the political class and commentariat are often given to bemoaning the impossibility of the situation, the reality is that enforceable rules and laws exist in other areas of work which clearly prevent such conduct.  


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In professions outside of politics, laws prevent deliberate misrepresentation whether you’re buying a car, selling a soap product, filing your taxes, or performing a medical procedure. Deliberate deception is verboten. There is no reason why the same rules can’t be applied to politics. This is not the creation of a new area of law, or an invitation to courts to adjudicate on matters with which they are not familiar. Findings of fact are their daily diet.  

In June 2022, Compassion in Politics drafted a measure to outlaw deliberate political misrepresentation which, with cross-party support, was presented as a Private Members’ Bill by Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts MP. Fifteen years earlier, another Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price, had attempted to introduce a similar measure to hold Tony Blair to account for using misleading information to justify the Iraq War. 

While the major parties in Westminster have so far resisted clear legislative action, there is now a possibility that in Wales the parties may be bolder. 

Price, now a politician in the Welsh Parliament, is working with members of the other three parties in the Senedd to make Wales the first nation in the world to ban deliberate deception by politicians, both in and outside Parliament – and is tantalisingly close to success, with a vote due before the summer.

As with the Future Generations Act, which has ignited a movement, the hope is that Wales would create a precedent that others would follow, including Westminster.

Other initiatives are also gaining in public support and could improve the political landscape.

The Campaign to Reform Political Advertising, championed by Lord David Putnam, would see political advertising brought within the same regulatory framework as other forms of advertising. Momentum is growing but, as the regulations are voluntary, party leaders would need to agree.   

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The Public Authorities (Accountability) Bill – also known as the ‘Hillsborough Law’ – would place a duty of candour on public officials. As Chancellor Jeremy Hunt recently acknowledged, the state can sometimes “close ranks around a lie”.  

But neither would address the yawning absence of accountability in politics at large.

For an incoming government, legislating against clear political deception is a clear low-cost vote-winner. Honesty and integrity frequently top the polls of what voters want from their political leaders. In addition, polling conducted by Opinium for Compassion in Politics just last month found that 72% of those surveyed would support the creation of an offence of deliberate deception.

At this moment in history, lying can no longer be dismissed as an unpleasant by-product of  the political game. It must be seen for what it is: a virus that threatens to fell the body politic and undermine what faith remains in the democratic process.

Where will the normalisation of lying end? We have the self-destruction of Brexit and the strong possibility of another Trump term as a warning. With Reform resurgent and Nigel Farage headed to Parliament, the stakes of inaction will only get higher. 

When a democratic reinvigoration is so clearly needed and demanded, the question is: will politicians take the chance to reset their political landscape while they still can?

Jennifer Nadel is a journalist, co-founder of Compassion in Politics, and part of the Common Sense Policy Group, which has co-authored ‘Act Now: A Vision for a Better Future and a New Social Contract’, which is available to pre-order here

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