It is often said that we get the politicians we deserve. But throughout this election I have kept wondering, ‘Are we really as bad as all this?’ The answer must be ‘yes’. This bland and empty ‘campaign’ has not only been the fault of the main parties competing to govern the UK – it has also been a reflection of what they believe we, the general public, now expect from our politics.
Of course the result is aggravating, in part because we keep trying to enjoy contradictory things. For instance at some point in recent years it was decided that any statement outside a vague centre-left orthodoxy constituted a ‘gaffe’. Such ‘gaffes’ get highlighted by the media who then seek denunciations of the ‘gaffe’ from any member of the public. The result is that politicians now treat words like landmines and try to speak only in the bland language of political orthodoxy. We are obviously not entirely happy with this arrangement because at the same time as having created this type of politics we complain that our politicians are all similar, dull identikit figures.
Or take the striking reluctance of the major party leaders to meet any ordinary voters. There was a time, not long ago, when even a Prime Minister could get up on a stage at election time, address an audience and take the risk that the audience might include doubters, hecklers and even political opponents. But then the cameras began to flock to anyone who challenged the politicians and presented them not as one person with an opinion, but as the authentic voice of the people and a possible game-changer in an election. After several rounds of this, the parties clearly recognised that the negatives associated with meeting the general public vastly outweighed any positives. This isn’t so much the case for the small parties, who have less to lose, but for the main parties, meeting just one angry member of the public can now derail a whole campaign.
So now it has proved possible to have an entire election campaign with only stage-managed events. The major party leaders need almost never meet the general public. And why would they when they can bus around ambitious, thrusting young party loyalists to form a pretend-public backdrop at their fake events? Whose fault is this? Well it is the media’s of course. But it is also the fault of us, the public, for pushing politicians away even as we complain that they are ignoring us. In the same way that it is our fault for wishing for impossible things from our leaders while giving them a pass for failing at possible things.
Consider the last week of stories. First there was the alleged ‘misspeak’ by David Cameron where he described as ‘career-defining’ what he quickly added was a ‘country-defining’ election. Cue a vast concentration of media attention. Was it a slip of the tongue? Or was it, to use one of the most idiotic motifs of political punditry, the mask slipping? Who knows? And how could anyone know? In any case it matters not a jot either way. But amid all the chatter, we forgot to recall that David Cameron is a human being, not an automaton.
Our insistence that our politicians must be ‘more human’ and yet not make any human slip-ups is literal in the case of Ed Miliband. On his way off-stage last week after an unusual orchestrated grilling on the BBC by invited members of the public, one of Miliband’s feet ever so slightly stumbled as he left the stage. Thank goodness for him that he didn’t actually fall. If he had done it would all be over by now. But this wasn’t even a stumble, it was an almost-stumble – a micro-stumble. Yet there was a story. What did this tell us about Ed Miliband asked the Conservatives, who hate it when this is done to them? In truth it told us no more than the endless, tedious obsession over how Ed Miliband once ate a bacon sandwich or the fascinating story of what Ed Miliband or David Cameron’s kitchens say about their ability to govern.
It is no coincidence that during this campaign of frippery the real stories were not even touched upon. There has been absolutely no debate over foreign policy in this election. It is as though the world is not there. While we concentrate on micro-stumbles and peoples’ kitchens we have become unsurprisingly small-minded and insular as a nation. The only time that defence came up as an issue during this campaign was when Michael Fallon slipped something about Ed Miliband’s relationship with his brother into a story about Trident. Inevitably the story became not about our nuclear deterrent but about whether this was a mean thing to do and whether Fallon should apologise to Ed Miliband.
You could argue that the British public no longer care about defence, security and foreign policy. But what about the issues we are thought to care about – for instance the issue which poll after poll consistently shows is the general public’s number one issue: immigration. The last Labour government oversaw a period of mass immigration unparalleled in our country’s history, the fall-out from which will pose challenges to this country for generations to come. Yet there was next to no debate when Ed Miliband had the temerity to attack the coalition government for failing to meet its own targets on immigration.
The gall of the Labour leader in saying this can hardly be believed. But he has a point. Because despite campaigning before the last election to bring migration into the UK down from hundreds of thousands a year to tens of thousands, the post-2010 government failed magnificently in this aim, with net migration close to 300,000 last year. True they managed to successfully bring down non-EU migration, and of course they are in a coalition, and of course we are in the EU, but the Conservative party completely and wholly failed in their pledge. Perhaps it is because both main parties know how abysmally they have failed in this area – and how unpopular they are for having failed – that they ensured this subject wasn’t seriously debated. But we the public still allow them to get away with this.
It’s like the NHS, perhaps the one issue of substance which politicians feel any confidence about. As others have pointed out, if the NHS is so good it is odd that our politicians spend so much time trying to fix it, or pretending that their political opponents either have destroyed it, or are in the process of destroying it. They must know this isn’t true. But they say it because they believe that it is the only thing the general public care about and that they have us so long as they say at some point in any statement, ‘Our NHS is the envy of the world and we have to do everything in our power to protect it’. We have had no serious discussion about the NHS or its failings because the public don’t seem to want to hear it.
Even these things might be small-fry of course. Because our country may not even exist at the next general election if the Scottish Nationalists do as well as predicted – a fact that barely registers outside the ever more insular and rank politics north of the border. It is also possible – depending on who comes out as the biggest party after Thursday – that after this election this country might finally have a say in what our relationship should be with the European Union. Neither of these considerable issues has been seriously discussed in this campaign.
When I say we the general public are ‘unhappy’ about what we have helped create some people will say I am exaggerating. So let me put it another way. Can anybody think of any sane person who is actually looking forward to the prospect of voting tomorrow? I can think of no election in recent memory in which people from across the political spectrum have seemed so un-eager. Is any Labour voter seriously pumped-up at the prospect of a Miliband premiership? Are any Conservatives actually looking forward to a second term of Cameron government, as opposed to just thinking it would be better than Ed Miliband being in Number 10? The minor parties have had their surges but the inevitable pre-election squeeze means that very few of their voters can be going to the polls believing that their vote will make much of a difference.
I could go on. But in short, this campaign has shown a democracy in a horrible state of disrepair, particularly gruesomely in hoc to the shallows. It has shown a democratic process resolutely failing to engage people or show why politics matters. At some point the political parties should try to address this. But they will not be able to do it alone. The weeks and months ahead will also require us, the public, to work out what we want from our media and what we expect from our politics.
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