“Dog Whistle Politics”

“Dog Whistle Politics” is not a phrase that I have come across before. At least, not that I can remember. I came across it while reading earlier about the Rahman affair in Tower Hamlets re vote rigging. I haven’t finished it yet – it is one of those very lengthy legal judgements:


I don’t know why I find these judgements so fascinating.

Here is a quote form the Judgement:

196. As will be seen, a feature of all these left/right disputes is the ubiquity of the phrase ‘dogwhistle politics’. The wise folk of the Oxford English Dictionary fight shy of defining this term but as good a definition as any may be found in Wikipedia: Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is used only as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by empathising with racist or revolutionary attitudes. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but is inaudible to humans.

The quote illustrates the meaning of the phrase ‘dog whistle politics’ pretty clearly, but I would suggest that the ‘coding’ in the message does not have to be especially hidden. For example, a labour candidate for election in a deprived area might circulate a message like this: “The conservatives have said that they intend to cut welfare payments. This will inevitably mean that, if you are old, infirm or out or work, then you will lose money”. There are two points to be made about that sentence, a) that it is aimed specifically at the population in that ward/constituency who are old, infirm or out of work because there are a lot of them, and, b) that the tory policy does not necessarily target those people as the message says. It could, for example, be concerned with massive payments to landlords in the form of housing benefits.

Interestingly, if a complaint was made to an ‘election fraud court’ about such a message, the court would shrug its shoulders because such statements are part of the knock-about nature of politics in the run up to an election. What a court would be interested in would be a ‘coded’ message which might impune, by the words used, that a specific candidate is racist, but the words used would only be understood in that way be certain groups. For example, in Tower Hamlets, over 30% of the population is of Bangladeshi origin. It is easy to see how certain words and phrases could have a meaning for these people which ‘White British’ people might not see. An election court would look dimly upon such messages since they attack the candidate personally, and not his politics.


It struck me that we have been seeing a lot of this ‘dog whistle’ stuff for years in the anti-tobacco field (and now in the anti-ecig field). The ‘dog whistle coding’ is in the wording. We saw it in the quote which I used in the last post:

If the measure is included in the forthcoming Public Health Bill, ministers are said to be largely in favour of voting it through.

We are used to reading stuff like that and immediately observing the ‘ifs and buts’, but many people are not so observant and will read the sentence to mean: “Scottish Government Ministers intend to legislate to ban smoking in hospital grounds”. In other words, the ‘coding’ is intended to deceive most people. The intention is to ‘soften up’ the people.


The ‘dog whistle politics’ (and it is political) has been working for a long time. Arnott admitted it when she claimed that anti-smoking propaganda was ‘a confidence trick’ – that ‘success was inevitable’. Well, the ‘dog whistle coding’ did work for a long time, but it is now becoming less and less effective. Looked at from this point of view, it becomes easier to understand why the Conservative Government permitted the PP legislation as the last gasp of the parliament – to them, PP DOES NOT MATTER. It appeased the medics and hangers-on and takes out a Labour party accusation and policy. Do we see why the ‘smoking in cars kiddies present’ was NOT enacted at the same time, seeing that it too was in the original parliamentary vote at the same time as PP? Labour have said that they will introduce a tobacco company levy, but NONE of the parties have mentioned ‘smoking in cars with kiddies present’. To me, it is clear that they realise that car owners will see such legislation as an attack of car owners. 

But even that legislation will be pointless, apart from the toe-hold into private enclosed places. The hospital grounds thing is to get a toe-hold into outdoor places.

But, all the time, the message is weakening. The ‘codes’ are losing their magic. The ‘dog whistle’ is becoming more audible. I have still not finished reading about the Trademarks dispute regarding PP in Australia. Why have Ireland and England and Wales gone for PP when this Trademarks dispute is so hot? It can only be as a support for Australia. What it means to me is that Cameron and co have no control over what is happening. The Zealots in the Health Dept organised it all ‘dog whistle style’.

But The People are not dogs. The sound emitted by dog whistles might only be audible to dogs, but even dogs can get used to the noise and ignore it.

So what is the worst scenario for Government? It is that all smokers stop smoking at the same time. What is the worst scenario for smokers? It is that Government bans the import of tobacco products. Both of those conjectures indicate that Smokers and Government should cooperate.

I think that this idea of cooperation is essential. There is no need for a war. The same applies to cocaine etc. There is no need for a war. The same applies to alcohol. There is no need for a war. Only Zealots demand a war.


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