Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Whistling a new tune

Guido Fawkes makes a fine point here about Michael Howard's comments on abortion. Watching American politics, you need a finely tuned ear to catch all the nuances on policy, as the various political leaders finetune their campaigns by dropping particular words or phrases into their speeches and soundbites. To most people, they are relatively meaningless, but they have great meaning to specific groups, hence the term 'dog whistle'. Now, Guido doesn't reckon that the current political row is a put up job by the Tories - he's said as much in a comment on Tom Watson's site.

I beg to differ. Recent Tory campaigning has seen appeals to important single-interest groups - the motoring lobby, pensioners, the rich, countryfolk - who are all expected to vote. This seems no different to me.

Howard, in common with Blair and Kennedy, was interviewed by Cosmopolitan magazine for their 'High Heeled Vote' campaign. All well and good - every vote counts, say I. Each was asked a series of questions, including one on their stand on abortion. Sadly, Cosmo don't put their articles on the web (or I couldn't find it), so here's the answers from the BBC:

'However, much I dislike the idea of abortion, you should not criminalise a woman who, in very difficult circumstances, makes that choice. Obviously there is a time beyond which you can't have an abortion, and we have no plans to change that although the debate will continue.'

Kennedy said that he had previously voted for a 22 week limit, but admitted that he didn't know what he would do now with the current state of medical advances.

'I believe abortion should be available to everyone, but the law should be changed. In the past I voted for a restriction to 22 weeks and I would be prepared to go down to 20.'

[EDIT] Of course, this wasn't the truth. Howard voted for 24 weeks and against 22 weeks. Blair and Kennedy also voted for 24 weeks.

Now, that says to me that none of the three are particular fans of abortion, but I don't think there's much real gap between them. Remember, votes on abortion are traditionally 'free' votes and therefore MPs are not bound by party whips. This is an issue that has been regarded as a matter of personal morality and not party political. So how come Howard got his views highlighted?

Step forward David Davis to chip in his fourpennorth on Sky and tell us that he understood that a Tory government would allow a Commons vote on the issue. The Telegraph picked up on the Tories 'unveiling a plan' to allow government time for a private member's bill on the issue (when are they NOT unveiling a plan?). The Times has them 'pledging curb on late abortions' and the Daily Mail had Howard calling for 'tighter abortion laws'.

So, a media campaign or a result of deliberate, planned spinning by Conservative Party fixers? The other parties have, rightly, steered clear of the issue, not wanting to start a political firestorm over this, so they have been outflanked by the Conservatives. The outcome is that Howard is seen as anti-abortion and may pick up some extra votes from those for whom this is a touchstone issue. As a bonus, the Tories lead the news agenda going into Budget week.

By the way, Howard's proposed changes would stop less than 1% of all abortions - they are almost always carried out this late for medical reasons.

If Guido can't see it, I can. Just ask yourself - cui bono. This is shameless politicising of a deeply sensitive subject by a party desperate for every last vote and reeks of grubby politics at its worst.

I'd also expect more of this sort of politicking - membership of political parties is dropping because we are interested in issues, not broad sweeps of policy. We have lots of single-issue groups with no wider beliefs beyond getting their way over a particular issue. Government is about more than just one issue and when you come to vote, think over the range of public policy before you decide.

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