‘Pick the target, freeze it, personalise it and polarise it.’ This is the best-known of Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals, and even if you haven’t heard of the man or the book, you’ll be familiar enough with the technique. We saw a classic example a couple of weeks ago: the way that off-the-cuff remark on Keynes by Niall Ferguson was seized by his enemies on the left to ‘expose’ him as a wicked homophobe. We saw it again in the recent black-ops campaign conducted by Conservative Central HQ against Ukip.
What CCHQ did, you’ll recall, is get all its spotty interns to go through the social media pages of every prospective Ukip candidate looking for material that could be used against them. That poor young chap photo-graphed apparently doing a Hitler salute (what? With his left hand and at a near-horizontal angle? I don’t think so) was a victim of this. Whether or not he was guilty was almost entirely irrelevant: the glory of the Nazis — as far as Alinsky-ite smear campaigns like this are concerned — is that they’re so magnificently toxic that they preclude a fair trial. The same goes for anyone accused of racism. Or paedophilia. Innocence is no excuse.
Was the campaign successful? Well, up to a point. The Ukip high command was sufficiently discombobulated to issue a warning to all future prospective candidates to ‘delete anything which could conceivably be used to embarrass you, or us.’ It goes on: ‘Read everything carefully before you send it and delete anything that could be misinterpreted. You may think it is funny: could the Daily Mirror or the Times make it appear otherwise?’
I think that last remark was aimed mainly at my brother Dick, Ukip candidate for the Worcester Riverside seat, who briefly became the most notorious Delingpole ever (he even made the Sun, damn it) when he posted up on Twitter an old mocked-up image he had done to amuse his Facebook friends a few years back which showed not just one Dick Delingpole but three Dick Delingpoles, all of them in Stormtrooper uniforms, standing just behind Hitler at a Nuremberg rally.
Most of the media — especially the Guardian, natch — took this as damning evidence of the Ukip Worcester Riverside candidate’s Nazi affiliations. I see their point. How big a Nazi do you have to be to go to the trouble of cloning yourself twice — and then building a time machine to transport all three versions of yourself back to Nuremberg in 1936, just so you can stand directly behind your beloved Fuhrer? It’s so patently obvious that Dick is an ardent Nazi that I’m a bit surprised the Department of Justice hasn’t yet built another time machine so that it can transport him back to the same place ten years later to face trial for the obvious war crimes he must have committed in his multiple Nazi incarnations. Maybe this should be the subject of the Guardian’s next campaign.
Meanwhile, in the real world where normal people live, I’m wondering whether that Nixonesque CCHQ smear campaign doesn’t represent a catastrophic misjudgment, symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the ‘detoxified’ Conservative party.
First, it was a misjudgment because it plays into the hands of all those who argue that the Tory party is now trapped with Labour and the Lib Dems in a Westminster bubble where no one either understands or cares about how ordinary people think. Career-safety; eggshell-treading; liberal cant; inability to make or take a joke; an overriding urge not — at any cost — to give offence to anyone, even if this means sacrificing your core political principles: all these may seem de rigueur to those inside the bubble. But to that vast majority of us outside, it reeks of the dishonesty and hypocrisy and remoteness and political correctness which are driving so many of us in such droves to the beery, smoky embrace of Nigel Farage.
Secondly, it was a misjudgment because when the centre-right starts using leftist tactics to try to destroy its own it is playing a very dangerous game. Saul Alinsky, let us not forget, was a Marxist revolutionary — the godfather of America’s hard-left community organiser movement — who wrote up his Rules For Radicals in the early 1970s as a vade mecum for all the bra-burning feminists, Leninists, Maoists, Black Panthers and Weathermen who wanted to overthrow the capitalist system. While Alinsky’s rules may hold valuable lessons for those of us at the opposite end of the political spectrum, they need treating — like all captured enemy weaponry — with caution and respect.
Alinsky points this out himself in Rule No. 2: ‘Never go outside the expertise of your people.’ In other words, if you’re a sitting Conservative councillor in Worcester Riverside, say, and your Ukip rival makes an innocuous Nazi joke, you must resist at all costs the temptation to try to make political capital of it by working yourself up into a lather of confected outrage.
Why must you resist it? Because, damn it, you are not some Trotskyite loon from Haringey council. You are a Conservative and politically correct name-calling is what Conservatives can never afford to do, because what it does is legitimise your leftist enemies’ tactics. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ it says. ‘I quite agree we should all be more humourless, more cautious of what we say, more wary of giving offence. We should spend less time judging people on the quality of their arguments and on their personal standards of behaviour and more, much more, on dirt-digging and name-calling and character assassination.’
Conservatives have many things to learn from the tactics of the left. But using cheap shots to close down the argument isn’t one of them. The facts of life are on our side; the evidence supports our case; the force of the logic is with us. Only a lunatic — or a CCHQ strategist — would choose to sacrifice our greatest, most enduring qualities for short-term electoral advantage.