I’m a massive fan of cats (I’m not averse to dogs either, before I alienate half of you), I love their aloofness, selective affection and the way they approach life absolutely on their own terms. So I was mildly alarmed when I began to notice use of the term “dead cat” in relation to political news stories.
I had to Google it.
For anyone else unfamiliar with the term, deadcatting is the practice of politicians releasing dramatic, shocking or sensationalist stories designed to distract from a more damaging story. The practice appears to have been named by an Australian political strategist, Lynton Crosby, who was employed to support Boris Johnson’s Mayoral election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and who seems to have had a lasting impact on the incumbent Prime Minister.
Both the PM and the Government seem to have experienced extremely regular “leaks” of sensationalist stories that relate to things that happened months previously and happen to come to light just when something they want to bury is unfolding. The practice is now so blatant that it has been widely and explicitly referenced in the press this week with even the FT picking up on it.
Dead cat stories tend to be salacious, gossipy and perfectly designed to feed a click-bait hungry public. These stories make it easy for the tabloids to then relegate other more serious, more important and often depressing stories to the middle pages. And, to clarify, by depressing I mean stories that relate to issues like erosion of our rights, undermining our checks and balances, creation of VIP procurement channels...
So, what was this week’s feline frenzy? First, the damaging story: the revelation that a Christmas party allegedly took place at 10 Downing Street in the run up to Christmas last year, at a time when everyone else was keeping apart from their loved ones and some people even died alone. I shall henceforth call this Schrodinger’s Christmas party: it has been denied that it took place, but the person who joked about it taking place has tearfully resigned and a man who has failed to confirm or deny that he was in attendance has been asked to investigate it. The cringe-inducing footage of senior Tory party officials laughing about the nature of the gathering, whilst being fully aware that it was being recorded, speaks for itself. They hold the public in utter contempt.
And the dead cat? It would be a stretch to claim that the timing of the birth of the PM’s most recent baby was deliberate (that would have required planning, foresight and attention to detail of a diabolical level, and only part of that is accurate in relation to our PM). But that was the announcement made yesterday and there’s nothing like a December baby to warm the cockles of the public’s heart. Although, judging by the response to Schrodinger’s party, it’s beginning to look a lot like the public’s heart is turning.
For a political party that has been critical of people who have children when in precarious financial circumstances, one might have expected the PM to wait until he could afford his own flat refurb before reproducing again, but no. On the same day as the birth was announced it was revealed that the Electoral Commission had fined the Conservative Party approximately £18k for improperly declaring donations that were used to fund the refurbishment of the flat at 11 Downing Street. The coinciding of these stories is no doubt accidental however the irony is not lost.
The other stories that the government would prefer us to overlook relate to a couple of pieces of legislation: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Nationality and Borders Bill.
The first Bill is of particular interest to me because ever since the 2016 referendum I have found myself participating in peaceful protests for the first time in my life. This Bill seeks to place almost all forms of protest at risk of being deemed criminal, with those participating potentially facing criminal charges. The Bill has had insufficient scrutiny in the Commons and contains loosely defined concepts which would seemingly place someone like me at risk of criminal prosecution for simply being deemed to be "noisy" (I am), causing "annoyance" (I do - you can ask my family) and having "impact" (well, quite - otherwise what is the point?). It also places additional discretionary powers into the hands of the police, who have not currently covered themselves in glory with their application of such powers.
The criminalisation of peaceful protest belongs to fascist regimes and dictatorships, not a country that once saw itself as a bastion of the rule of law. Morality should always underpin legality.
Speaking of morality, the Nationality and Borders Bill stoops even lower. It introduces powers to strip people of their British Citizenship without even telling them and without recourse to appeal. It could also see prosecution of those rescuing drowning refugees in the Channel and the establishment of “processing centres” for asylum applicants in other countries. Australia have attempted this approach, resulting in huge expense and severe trauma of already traumatised refugees. The “pushback” of boats in the Channel is highly likely to be in breach of international law, however such details are unlikely to perturb a government that has grown absolutely comfortable with a complete absence of legality, morality, accountability or compassion.
Compassion in politics is something that Renew has always taken seriously. Whilst we tend to be heavily critical of the government we have always tried to ensure that our views are balanced, well informed and based on evidence. To inform my thinking on what a kinder and more compassionate politics could look like, on my Christmas list this year (supposing Santa is satisfied that I have not been too noisy or annoying) is a new book: “How Compassion can Transform our Politics, Economy, and Society”, edited by Matt Hawkins and Jennifer Nadel. I am looking forward to reading more ideas about how we can work together to improve our country and help everyone achieve their full potential.
In the coming weeks, see how many dead cats you can spot. When you think you might have spotted one, look for the story being buried and, more importantly, consider what action you could take to raise the profile of that particular story: donate to a relevant charity if you are able, Tweet / e-mail / snail mail your MP, write a letter to your local newspaper or phone in to a radio show. Participation is far, far easier than I ever realised - and once you take the first step, you’ll wonder what ever held you back.
Thanks for your continued support for Renew. We can’t do anything without you so please spread the word and get others to join us. Thank you.