When does a statement from a politician or a councillor become a point-scoring one?
A debate on council tax prompted a senior councillor to say residents would see through “party political one-off points scoring”.
The comment from the portfolio holder for finance, councillor Michael Headley (LibDems, Putnoe Ward) came as the council debated the Conservative Group’s proposed amendment to freeze Bedford Borough’s council tax for one year.
Cllr Headley added his own, saying he’s not going to take any criticism from the Conservatives on the level of council tax as “when they were in charge here in this building council tax soared at inflation-busting rates”.
Of the proposed budget, the Conservative Group leader, councillor Graeme Coombes (Wilshamstead Ward), said that if he was cynical he might think the mayor is building an election war chest for 2023.
All examples of political point-scoring, but when does a statement from a politician or a councillor become a point-scoring one?
Here is a brief guide to what residents should be looking out for on the long road to the local elections in May 2023.
Dr Darren Lilleker, professor of political communication at Bournemouth University, said: “I’m not really sure if there’s ever been any criteria against it [point scoring], but I suppose really it’s making it clear that you are comparing yourself to your opponents.
“It’s making this very blunt comparison, that we are achieving things whereas the opposition is trying to block us or that they wouldn’t have achieved this.
“So, it’s that kind of independence to what the opposition position is, making a claim that we’re doing something better than the other side would.”
The local democracy service asked if the comments were used to discredit the argument from the other side.
Dr Lilleker said: “Yes, and the more they can undermine what the opposition’s position is the better, so it is harder to argue against what they doing but also more generally it is just simply to constantly keep that claim going that ‘we are better’.”
And he added: “They want to have their quote on the front page of the newspaper, and to be honest, often it doesn’t really matter if it’s something that’s coordinated – that they keep on saying it, or if it’s a consistent series of comparative statements that undermine the opposition.
“But it’s part of that strategy of those people wanting to capture a headline to say that we are better, we’ve achieved something that they wouldn’t or didn’t, that’s what they really want to headline.”
Dr Lilleker explained that the tone of delivery could also be used to score points, depending on the dynamics of a council chamber.
He said: “So if you know the person you’re arguing against doesn’t deal well with aggression, then it’s a good way of shutting them up.
“If they can’t respond aggressively it will make them look weak, and the other look strong.
“So that could be part of that it and it could also be something that is particularly emotional. You may remember the horrible case of Baby P when his death was revealed and Gordon Brown did his announcement in this very procedural, managerial way – we’re going to have an investigation.
“In reply, David Cameron stood up and basically spoke as many parents probably would when responding, he spoke with anger.
“You’re probably not going to get too much emotions on local agriculture, but positions on immigration, perhaps, where people can be angry and emotional about it.
“That can ramp up that tension but if the person is seen to be angry and voicing the opinion of the people, it kind of reinforces them as being in touch.
“You either respond in kind, or you oppose me but you are going to have to respond in some way that is also emotional, so it gives that emotion dimension to it, which could make it resonate.
“Of course, these types of things happen in Prime Minister’s Question Time because it’s more public, it is more likely to be seen on the news. Council chambers maybe not, it may be more about closing down debate within that chamber itself,” he said.
But does it ever really backfire?
Dr Lilleker did not have an example from local politics, but he suggested Boris Johnson’s recent comment about Keir Starmer.
“It was trying to deflect and say, well everyone makes mistakes, and we don’t oversee everything, I guess is the nicest way of interpreting what he said.
“But the implications of what he said, and the fact that it’s a far-right meme, is something that went against him and left him having quite negative coverage,” he said.
And he suggested that people should treat political point-scoring with “a healthy dose of scepticism.”
“I don’t agree with cynicism where people just disbelieve everything a politician says, because that’s not helpful,” he said.
“But we shouldn’t believe everything a politician says and it has to be with some degree of scepticism because they’re trying to persuade us, they’re trying to make us feel that one side is better than the other for some reason.
“You have to put that into the context of well, they would say that.
“I think often one of the problems is that the people are quite selective about what they believe, if they feel they are more towards one side then the other and that side says we’re better than them, they will believe it and it will reinforce what they already believe.
“The problem is that often people read news and interpret it through their own partisan lens and their beliefs about particular issues.
“Also you have canvassers that often are more likely to mobilise the converted than going around trying to win new votes.
“So you don’t get a huge amount of that the opportunity really to step back, where you can look at it and track it back and say ‘well you didn’t say that previously’.
“The public lead busy lives, they don’t engage in that way.
“I think generally the permanent campaign, or the permanent drive, to grab headlines in a way debases the tone of debate.
“That it’s more about winning a very short argument, having the sound bite that is likely to be tweeted or captured and go out to be heard by people than actually politicians doing things that are the best for the people they serve.
“And I think that’s a problem with the way that politics is done most of the time, and people actually feel that lot of the time as well,” he said.
by Johh Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter