Lies, Damned Lies and Election Literature

Introduction (back to my election leaflet) The whole leaflet and commentary Site map

A leaflet published by the Tavistock Agent for the Liberal Democrats was distributed around Tavistock during the last week of the election campaign. It comprises a personal attack on the Town Mayor by name and on me in my capacity as chairman of West Devon's Planning Committee. It came to my attention yesterday, 30th April 2003.

I haven't time to reproduce the whole leaflet now - today is election day - but, subject to legal advice, shall do so shortly. Here is the element of it that I most object to because it is so written as to give the impression that I have behaved at best improperly, at worst, corruptly.
I have not, so I have nothing to fear. So here is the lie, as published by the LibDem agent and the truth, which is a matter of public record.

The Lie

How Borough Planning fails Tavistock

One of our opponents has been Chairman of the Borough Planning Committee for 4 years. There "is no big local issue", he says. If re-elected, he says, he "will devote more time to his duties as Chairman". He needs to! What about these Tavistock decisions?

[There follow 4 bullet points that are valid issues for debate. The fifth, referring to the road in which I live, is a lie and gives the impression that I have used my position to further my personal interests. Here is the lie:]
  • The Down Road Issue. At one point in the Local Plan, Down Road was designated for in-fill development, like so much of Tavistock. This proposal was quietly dropped. Why?

    The Truth

    West Devon's Local Plan, adopted in 1997, contains a policy "TH2", thus:

    During public consultation on the Local Plan during the last 2 years or so, one or more objections were lodged by the public at the "First Deposit" stage to the continued inclusion of this policy in the revised Local Plan. All the objections were considered by a "working group" of councillors. I sat on the working group, as Chairman of Planning Committee, but I took no part in consideration of TH2; the working group did not recommend that the policy be deleted or changed in the revised Local Plan; I took no part in consideration of that policy, which was incorporated into the Second Deposit Draft as policy H36. Furthermore, I never sat on the Strategic Development Committee which is the committee that the working group reported to. My Planning Committee decides planning applications; it does not make the planning policies. The distinction is analogous to that between Parliament, which makes laws and the Courts which apply them.
    Officers did not recommend that the policy should be deleted. No Borough Councillor, LibDem or other, submitted any motion to delete the policy, either at committee or at the subsequent Council Meeting that agreed the Second Deposit Version of the Revised Local Plan.

    Furthermore, as a matter of fact, nowhere within the Local Plan area has been "designated for infill development". Infill may be permitted subject to a series of criteria in appropriate policies on land within defined settlement limits. The Down Road area is within the settlement limit for Tavistock. In addition, neither the adopted policy (TH2) nor the draft policy (H36) preclude infill development in the Down Road and Chollacott Lane areas. The policies do however add additional criteria against which proposals in those locations would be judged.

    At no time since 1997 has any proposal to delete policy TH2 been moved by any West Devon Councillor. This is a matter of public record. Any contrary statement is a lie. Whether it is a careless lie or a deliberate one is not for me to say.

    At the risk of confusing the issue, a LibDem councillor did raise the issue at a Tavistock Town Council meeting. I withdrew from the meeting during the discussion (for obvious reasons), so I do not know what he said, though I believe he wanted the Town Council to object to the policy. As the councillor in question was also a Borough Councillor, one must ask why he did not move to delete the policy at WDBC, where he could have sought the support of his group and had the issue debated by the council that actually had power to change or delete it.

    You may think that, given the layout of the LibDem election leaflet, where the lie about "The Down Road Issue" was published as a direct criticism of me as Chairman of the Planning Committee, the intention was to imply that I had misused my office for some personal reason. If so, then the lie is more than a political debating point: it is a deliberate attempt to make those reading it think that I am a corrupt councillor. Needless, to say, I have instructed my solicitor to take counsel's opinion about what action I ought now to take to set the public record straight.


    The danger of lies like this is that it takes only a line or two of print to tell a plausible lie but several paragraphs of rather boring and complicated text to nail it.
    Another danger is that it brings politics into disrepute. Not only does it reinforce the popular but largely untrue notion that politicians are usually self-serving, but it also damages the reputation of the party that tells the lie.

    It would be easy for me to say "this is typical of LibDems and a good reason not to vote for them". Or I could say "this is typical of party politics and a good reason to vote for independents like me". Neither would be true. What I do say, as I have before, is that there is a thread running through party politics that twists complicated facts into untrue or misleading headlines or sound bites and that there is a thread that runs through LibDem electioneering in my experience of the last 16 years in Tavistock that reinforces my view. Their literature claims credit for achievements that are not their own; it denigrates, ignores or marginalises the roles of others; it makes wildly extravagent personal attacks on the integrity of others; it uses barely legitimate techniques to exaggerate the positive achievements of its own people.

    The truth is that all political parties do these things to some extent. My impression is that LibDems do it more systematically than the other major parties. That is a generalisation and I freely admit that my impression may be coloured by my own broad conservatism.

    I could have published wholly truthful disparaging facts about my LibDem opponents. I could have been scathing about the fact that they couldn't even find a single candidate for Tavistock South Ward who lives in the ward: two don't even live in Tavistock. I could have pointed out that one of their candidates spoke just once during the four years that he previously served on West Devon Borough Council. I could have told the story of another who used the Town Council's public question time to make a most unpleasant political attack on a candidate whilst stating that he was himself non-political.
    I have lots of these stories. I don't need to invent them.

    I do not do that sort of thing because I don't want to win a seat with those sort of tactics. I don't need to. If I ever do feel that need, I don't think I shall want to be a councillor any more. The price would be just too high.


    Introduction (back to my election leaflet) The whole leaflet and commentary Site map

    Published as an Internet document by R W Mathew, Willowby, Down Road, Tavistock, Devon

    1-4 May 2003