30 April 2010

Election Saturation

Is it just me, or is it just getting too much now? The constant talk, so-called ‘expert analysis’, endless trite journalistic commentary, minute probing of every possible element of the party leaders’ purported personalities, cameras and microphones extended ruthlessly into every conceivable party-political orifice, and all of this played over and over again ad nauseum.

Last night’s final leader’s ‘debate’ was the clincher. After all these weeks of cheap point-scoring and badly aimed pot-shots on all sides, the last debate felt like listening to the same broken record, except slightly more out-of-tune and now almost excruciating to hear again.

Nothing new in the debate, no meaningful elaboration of anything that’s been said, but instead each leader standing behind the firing line, indulging in the same banal repetition of exactly the same slogans and quick-fix supposed ‘policy’ solutions to micro-issues, without ever even daring to address the real fundamental problems we, and the world, are now facing. Indeed, nothing really seems to be any clearer than it was before the debates started. Now we have a better idea of who wants power. But most people still don’t feel like the debates have helped them make their minds up. In fact, many people feel more confused than ever.

Of course, there are a few interesting points of difference between the parties. Lib Dems’ insistence on re-thinking our dependence on the Cold War-era Trident nuclear system is interesting, and inspired by the common sense notion that spending billions on a militarization process we’ll never use makes no sense in the midst of a recession (if ever). So is their idea to break-up the banks to separate speculative investment activities from the high-street retail sector where most of us put our savings. And their proposals to ‘clean-up’ politics starting with harder regulation of MPs to make them meaningfully accountable strikes a chord.

But after listening to Nick Clegg pretty much repeat the same tired sloganeering about the ‘old parties’, and ‘doing something different’, even he started to grate on me.

The problem is that none of the parties display any real understanding of the economic mess we’re in. Gordon Brown, who continuously illustrates that he has about as much ministerial charisma as a dead fish, has succeeded only in guaranteeing that he’s out of the race. The more he speaks, the more I want to run and hide. He looks, and sounds, like a strange, shrunken, Anglo-Scottish version of the Incredible Hulk in a suit.

People do, indeed, want ‘change’. That’s why what Brown’s actually saying no longer has any relevance. The more you see him, the more you want to see less of him. The public are fed-up. We never elected him in the first-place, and now here he is, looking and sounding more and more desperate.

But Clegg and David Cameron hardly fare any better. Both of them now come across as political prostitutes, desperately and shamelessly trying to auction themselves to the highest bidder. Cameron, looking for all the world like a wax-doll in Madam Tussauds, now innovates the idea of the ‘Big Society’, supposedly challenging the ‘old’ Tory fundamental, laid down famously by Margaret Thatcher, that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Beneath the rhetoric, however, is exactly the same Tory principle after all these years. Thatcher’s deification of ‘the individual’ was an euphemism for ‘small’ government, but only small relative to the relegation of power to the private sector.

What’s changed with Cameron? He talks about ‘values’ and ‘coming together’, but the ‘Big Society’ is another way of advocating precisely what Thatcher wanted – a ‘small’ government, but only small relative to the relegation of power to the private sector. Cameron’s unspecified talk of ‘social enterprises’ is simply paving the way for deregulated private power to have a bigger stake in social and community projects. But at least Cameron has some sort of charisma, however contrived. In the last debate in particular, he retained a calm, decisive demeanour. No doubt, he has class. Of the Etonian variety, but it’s more watchable than the Anglo-Scottish Hulk.

Clegg might offer some alternative ideas, but he’s increasingly found it hard to do more than wave his hands around Blair-style while going on about the ‘old parties’ trying to score political points – forgetting that he’s now indulging in the same cheap point-scoring. Having said that, of the three, he and the Lib Dems are perhaps the least morally compromised, having been exiled from power for 65 years, which is perhaps why on some issues they’re happy to think out of the box.

The irony is that after listening to these three and their minions drone on and on trying to sell themselves in their desperation to secure their political careers, it remained decidedly unclear whose policy-prescriptions were actually superior. No wonder, then, that if the polls are anything to go by, Cameron’s lessons in body-language and PR sloganeering – complete with shiny squeaky-clean wax-doll presentation – put him in the lead.

Let’s not have any illusions that the seeming preference for Cameron means that the public have any clue what he and his party are actually saying, and proposing to do. The best indication of where the British public lies in terms of policy is in the outcome of the survey of the (ever-growing) sample of over 210,000 people by VoteforPolicies.org.uk. The website allows you to answer a carefully constructed multiple-choice questionnaire identifying your policy favourites (without naming the six parties they come from) on the big issues like the economy, healthcare, crime, democracy, the environment, and so on; then automatically analyses the results to situate which party, or parties, your favourites fit with.

The results this Friday midday are really surprising, and illustrate that in terms of actual policy, the majority of the public is far left of field than all the mainstream parties. Amazingly, the Green Party is in the lead at 25 per cent; Labour in second-place at 19 per cent; Lib Dems nearly head-to-head with them at 18 per cent; Conservatives at 15.99 per cent; with the ultra-right UK Independent Party and BNP snailing away at 11 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

So Cameron’s growing success is not down to his policies. It’s down to his shiny face, which has grown in shininess in direct proportion to donations the Tories have received. Indeed, the Tories are clearly the party favoured overwhelmingly by British capital, raking in by week two 2.2 million, compared to Labour’s £1.5 million – and a paultry £120,000 for the Lib Dems (the bulk of which came from a ‘non-dom’, although Clegg described this practice as “wholly wrong” when criticising Lord Ashcroft’s donations to the Tories – so much for hating ‘point-scoring’).

Britain’s corporate classes had, indeed, made their decision some time ago, indicated by the fact that the Tories had raised £11 million in the last three months of 2009 compared to £5 million by Labour. In other words, the party with the smoothest PR campaign machinery is Cameron’s. The polls are a reflection, inevitably in the circumstances, not only of the success of the Tory money machine, but of the extent to which British democracy remains beholden to powerful vested interests.

The farce that has become British party-politics is now patently clear, and illustrative of the deep-rooted nature of the political crisis we face in this country. This election bears absolutely no comparison to the euphoric events that swept Obama to victory, bringing tears of joy to millions. On the contrary, the British elections have been marred by a chronic sense of uncertainty, anxiety, apathy and even dread. That’s not to say there’s no point voting.

There’s always a point in voting. To not vote is to willingly forfeit what little say we do have in which salesman takes the reigns of our government. To not vote at all is as if to send a message to Whitehall saying ‘carry on old boys’. Indeed, part of the problem is that because less and less people are voting, the nature of our government is being decided by less and less of the population – and increasingly by sectors who are more privileged.

So we need, urgently, to show our hand in the elections, to show that we can’t be ignored. But we need to be pragmatic about the outcome, and to know that we need to take the battle for a better Britain far beyond Whitehall, to civil society, to ramp up the popular pressure that can compel the massive structural transformations necessary for us to survive coming economic, energy and ecological crises.

The best we can hope for at this stage is that whoever wins the elections, they do so in circumstances which make it difficult for them to simply do as they please without ratcheting up cross-party parliamentary and public support. Perhaps a hung parliament would not be all that bad for a democracy which most of us already know was broken many years ago.

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