Unless you have been snow-camping in the Mamores for the last month or are a fanatic for one party you will be cringing every time the word ‘election’ is mentioned. And the fervour with which the media—BBC especially—are banging on about it could tightly be accused of overkill. But they are not the main culprits.
Because, when you talk to the average voter and reassure them that you are not there to punt any particular point of view, they tend to lose that look of panic and calm down. For younger voters, brought up with mobile phones and Facebook, the scrappy, sound-bite nature of modern discourse on social media is second nature. If you can’t tweet or text it, the message isn’t worth digesting.
Older votes recall gentler days, when party political broadcasts might actually be watched and leaflets read. But that was before broadcasters discovered the jump cut, the gladiatorial lure of the leaders’ debate and the rottweiler interview.
To be fair to the politicians, such developments forced them into a media arms race. Whereas fifty years ago, any senior politician being interviewed would be treated with deference and respect. They had, after all, deigned to discuss things in public, for which the interviewer should be suitably grateful. Asking a question more than once was deemed rude. As interviewers became more forensic, interviewees became more evasive. This was compounded when party staffers discovered media management and armed their politician front men with media training, the basic rules of which are:
- Appear authoritative; never stumble; keep talking
- Always be positive—admit nothing
- Answer a different question if the first one is awkward
- Punt your policy sound bite whether its germane or not
- Bad-mouth the opposition at any opportunity.
Once one party (actually the Tories) had hired the Young Turk SPADs who became the priesthood of this religion, major parties followed suit. This led to embracing techniques culled from other countries, like ‘air war’ vs ‘ground war’, focus groups, phone canvassing, targeted mailing, etc. To marshal and manage the complexities and subtleties of all this, the ‘Chief of Staff’ role became pivotal. By dint of experience, parties learned that this role required the properties of a sales whizz, a drill sergeant and a pit bull. The result wasn’t pretty. But it was effective. As the prototype, Alaastair Campbell showed what could be done by delivering Blair a series of election victories and spawning the highly entertaining “In the Thick of It“.
Since Blair stood down, Alaastair has had many imitators, with both the present two main exponents of the creed (Dominic Cumming for Boris Johnson and Seamus Milne for Jeremy Corbyn) being just as uncompromising in ranking effectiveness above all else. They may be titled “Executive Director of Strategy and Communications” or whatever, but make no mistake: they dominate how the party—and that includes all senior members—behave in the public eye.
Sadly, while this pubic stonewalling prevents too much discussion of real issues—let lone car crash disasters—it has bred a level of cynicism among all kinds of voters, whether they pay attention or not. The media frenzy that features this merely adds to the cynicism. Even seasoned forensic interviewers of the Jeremy Paxman/Andrew Neil/Andrew Marr Illuminati make scant headway towards the truth when faced with evasion of such elegance that thee should be Brtawards for those involved.
All of which leaves those parties foolish enough to still believe honesty and sincerity has a place in 21st century politics pretty much out in the cold. It leaves Caroline Lucas coming across like a wide-eyed new ecology lecturer and Jo Swinson as an earnest girl scout. You can fault what they say. But in the bear-pit-masquerading-as-debate into which British elections have fallen, political success, if not survival, appears to hinge on how effectively you can hoodwink the electorate—as well as the interviewers.