How our leaders bored the Great Ignored

The first leaders’ debate was electoral porn for the media classes. The rest of us were left uninspired on the sidelines.

David Bowden

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Bloody hell, that was good wasn’t it? Finally we saw a clear-eyed and brutal analysis of the bleak situation facing us. A hellish vision of society on the edge of breakdown and without any prospect of a future; our only hope an increasingly authoritarian state power to restrict immigration, to hold communities together and keep the deranged savagery of humanity in check. A world bereft of purpose or meaning, only relying on its fragile memory of more civilised days to retain any semblance of control. Michael Caine cast as our only potential saviour.

Okay, I’d actually turned on to ITV4 by mistake, which was showing Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 dystopian film Children of Men. When I finally made it on to the much-anticipated leadership debate (ITV1), however, it did at least take several seconds to get my bearings. ‘No more foreign chefs’, said dyspeptic New Labour leader Gordon Brown. ‘We need a border police and a cap’, said sartorially-minded Conservative leader David Cameron. ‘Put people before politics’, insisted Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, before outlining his policy to let only good immigrants (doctors and footballers) in and confine them to certain parts of the country, under the watchful eye of a liberal and tolerant state.

History was being made, we were assured. It was a good day for democracy. The leaders of the three main parties were being given an hour-and-a-half, unmediated by media commentators and spindoctors, to debate the key issues facing a country emerging from a severe recession and political crisis in order to appeal for the votes of the people. And we got? Well, pretty much business as usual.

Cameron, the anointed one if the opinion polls are to be believed, performed with all the nervousness and restraint his party has shown for much of the past year: the default winners, uncertain of what they stand for and, like a sweaty-palmed suitor, afraid to say anything that may upset or offend a public who they know does not love them back. The core message Cameron wanted to get across was not to be frightened of a Tory government: in other words, anything you think we may stand for, we don’t anymore.

Brown – the fish out of water as the man of unshowy substance in a superficial and stylish medium – conducted himself with all the cynical fear-mongering and political cowardliness which will come to define New Labour, and his reign in particular. He spent most of his time assuring the public how much he agreed with Clegg. The incumbent prime minister trying to steal a bit of popularity and authority from the previously anonymous leader of the third biggest party in the land.

So what of Mr Clegg? By common consent he had the most to gain by being given the chance to share a stage with the Big Two and everyone agreed he seized the opportunity. He wanted ‘more honesty’ from his rivals. He wanted a ‘more fair’ Britain. He wanted to give the public a new alternative to the same old ‘blue and red’ candidates. He was the clear winner, announced Alan Johnson and Ed Miliband. Just a reminder: Alan Johnson is Labour’s home secretary while Miliband is one of the front runners to be Brown’s successor. A good day for democracy, remember.

Why is Clegg so lusted after? Partly, in fairness, because he was well-polished for his day in the sun: his plea for honesty from Cameron and Brown on their proposed cuts expressed a certain public frustration with their rhetorical flourishes. As the candidate who has no history in, or serious prospect of, government he was able to take the role of the observer, the voice of the angry Great Ignored. His education policy – banning government micro-management of schools and returning authority over teaching to the teachers themselves, rather than educationalists or advisers – even sounded quite interesting.

But there was little analysis or explanation of what this meant in practice. Because this was Clegg’s audition for the hung parliament. And he took it by being as anti-political as possible. On immigration, the war in Afghanistan and the economy he took on entirely mainstream positions, only marking his party out because they were ‘fully costed’. On several issues he wanted to put ‘people before politics’: because, in the wake of the expenses scandal, who would trust our corrupt politicians to be political? New Labour and Conservative politicians alike can applaud and align themselves with him precisely because he is one of them. On law and order he was even speaking their language, down to its crummiest rebranding and most obnoxious philosophy. Prisons are no longer prisons, but ‘colleges of crime’, he said. He doesn’t want to lock people up (the Lib Dems are the party of civil liberties, remember) but, he told us, ‘I want to change behaviour’.

Afterwards commentators asked why Cameron and Brown had agreed to share a platform with a leader who had nothing to lose. The truth is, faced with the desperate spectre of a hung parliament, neither did they: Clegg is one of them, infinitely malleable to whichever party he chooses to align himself.

No one watching the coverage of these debates could be left in little doubt they were pornography for the political-media class. Pundits and politicians lined up on BBC and ITV afterwards to tell us how exciting it all was. At long last they had the audience they feel they deserved: 9.4million, beating both Coronation Street and EastEnders, reported the Guardian breathlessly (the Guardian had predicted an audience of 21million before the debate aired). Brown even congratulated the audience in his concluding remarks for ‘sticking with’ a TV programme which wasn’t The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.

Finally, the media commentators and politicians assured us afterwards, we have the public we deserve. And now the public have finally emerged blinking into the light they need to be weighed and measured by an army of pollsters and analysts. BBC’s Newsnight had Ipsos MORI and their ‘Worm’ to monitor the responses of carefully selected focus-groups. James Purnell, the Blairite MP standing down at this election, rushed on to This Week – a late-night political discussion show which in its dumbed-down presentational style literally drips with elite contempt for Britain’s great unwashed – to assure us that Brown had won on Twitter.

The debates, then, saw the political elite begin its re-engagement with the Great Ignored. Their first act was to stage-manage them out of the debate itself, even down to regulating whether the studio audience clapped or laughed. Then they monitor, prod and poke over how presentation and messages were received by this passive and capricious beast. In-depth discussion over the policy and principles expressed by the leaders – their ideas and their vision – was not on the agenda. The People Before Politics was the winning slogan of this first debate. And what of the people? Were they happy? Were they free? As Auden wrote, the question is absurd – if anything was wrong we should certainly have heard.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is also co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum (CAF). Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, will be speaking on the General Election at the Current Affairs Forum on Tuesday 20 April. For more details e-mail CAF {encode=”currentaffairs@instituteofideas.com” title=”here “}.

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