Is there a General Election taking place?

spiked’s TV columnist goes all Baudrillardian after sitting in the audience of a weird ITV politics show.

David Bowden

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Is there actually an election on? I’ve certainly read about one on the internet – although you read a lot of things on the internet – and of course those nice inoffensive men on that Leaders’ Debates show keep talking about a poll happening soon. But are you convinced it’s actually happening? Have you had heated arguments down the local town hall or pub over the leaders’ vision of society, or even met any local candidates out canvassing? If the government changes and it’s exactly the same as the last one, does it actually matter?

If it sounds like I’ve gone all Jean Baudrillard, I apologise, but in my capacity as TV reviewer I went along to the recording of a show on Wednesday night, and then had to rush home to catch the thing on TV so that I could review it. It’s warped me. I’m Alice through the looking glass. I’m the self-eating serpent Ourobouros. I’m Dave Bowman going through the blackhole in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Part of the problem has been that the show in question was ITV1’s Campaign 2010 with Jonathan Dimbleby, which pitted representatives from the three main parties – Andy Burnham (Labour), Andrew Lansley (Conservative) and David Laws (Lib Dem) – in an hour of debate with Mr Dimbleby, a studio audience and another panel of three experts. Most of the debate focused on who would work with who if the electorate were unwilling to install any one party in government. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, insisted they should call it a ‘balanced parliament’. James Caan – one of the businessmen from the BBC’s Dragon’s Den – suggested rebranding it a ‘coalition parliament’ to allay City fears.

One may reasonably expect watching the filming of a TV show to be an unreal and uncanny experience: it is a media format that, almost by definition, is false. But what is striking, as the election draws closer, is how much the unreality has taken over the political and media elite. Indeed, the Conservatives’ latest party election broadcast is an all-out smear attack on the ‘Hung Parliament Party’. Although it is intended as a satire on the Lib Dems, it’s worth noting that that the Tories aren’t exactly clear on what they would actually do if granted the decisive leadership of a majority government.

In the past, parties’ campaign slogans would insist, if nothing else, that they were better than their opponents. Now the party widely assumed to be the next government can merely assert that they are better than nothing. New Labour, with Gordon Brown busily promoting himself as the man of substance, has been frustrated in their attempt to enlist children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig as a supporter. Meanwhile, Britain’s liberal commentators ask us to vote Brown to get Clegg while seeking out ways to measure scientifically their own smugness.

But while Britain’s political malaise is hardly a secret, the biggest story these past few weeks has been the media’s own little crisis. The liberal print media crow over the breaking of the supposed Murdoch domination of politics, but fear the attacks on Clegg from their other rivals in the right-wing press. As the BBC’s current affairs show Newsnight and leading Conservative blogger Iain Dale have both observed, the anticipated social media revolution has seemingly not occurred. In a climate where politicians are eager not to be seen to put politics first, and the media are increasingly uncertain of their ability to shape or frame debate, all that’s left is to ponder the whims of the public.

This, I couldn’t help but feel, was reflected in the very odd format of Campaign 2010. While shows such as the BBC’s Question Time have long encouraged media pundits to share a platform with politicians to field questions from the audience, this programme put the interviewer and politicians front-stage, three pundits in front to comment on proceedings, and finally the audience to give the public a voice. Even more strikingly, one of the pundits was Mike Smithson, of website, whose job was to analyse the polls and attempt to predict which way the vote would turn, alongside a TV businessman and Daily Mail journalist.

Nobody was patronised, everybody had their say; but it was difficult to leave the show any the wiser over what the next government – whether majority, hung, balanced or whatever way you spin it – actually would do to kickstart economic growth. The politicians spoke eagerly of positive messages and honesty, but no one gave any indication that politics isn’t just something which occurs, but involves winning arguments and inspiring an electorate with a vision or worldview. Instead, the focus is on finding out what people think, and letting them have their say. With this election, we’re all commentators now.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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