When Right is Wrong

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There were clashes between Ed Miliband and David Cameron in the House of Commons this week over comments alleged to have been made by Lord Freud, a government minister, suggesting that people with disabilities could be paid less than the minimum wage. A few thoughts.

In a workplace that isn’t the House of Commons, a point like this would probably best be dealt with by a quiet word in someone’s ear to clarify what had been said, whether that was a problem and, if so, to straighten out policy and any musings around that. But the House of Commons isn’t a normal workplace.  The objective of the adversarial political system is to score points at your opponent’s expense.

That point-scoring is now played out – repeatedly – on television, online, on radio. This is behaviour prompted by a system that was designed for a closed community, not public display.

But it’s also behaviour that runs counter to what voters do – and are expected to do and expect of others – in their own workplaces and in their daily lives. Is it any wonder that voters are disengaging from traditional politics and the traditional parties – or that we currently have a coalition government that requires at least some co-operation between the parties?

Even within the adversarial political system, a point can sometimes be made more forcefully by knowing when to stop. It’s one of those strange twists of logic that a perfectly valid and morally justified argument often becomes weaker if it’s pushed too hard.  In other words, telling people we’re right, only too often puts us in the wrong.  My sense is that Ed Miliband could have made his point even more forcefully in the Commons clash this week if he’d simply stopped talking at an earlier stage.