Friday, April 30, 2010

Polls Apart

Britain elects a new Government next Thursday. Unfortunately, this fact seems to have escaped the media in this country. They seem to be harbouring under the illusion that we're electing a President, not a Prime Minister, and the party he belongs to and the policies he stands for are incidental. What matters is how the candidates look, that they avoid mistakes, and what they say is snappy and memorable enough to play well in short packages on the news and bounce them up in that night's opinion poll.

Of course, complaining that modern politics has got too presidential, that we're voting for personalities and not policies, is nothing new. It's happened during every election campaign I've experienced. Yet in this one it has been more exaggerated than ever, simply because, in a direct crib from the US, the three main candidates have taken part in three separate televised debates. These set pieces have dominated the campaign, allowing even less room than before (and the room was so small you had to go outside to change your mind) for any discussion of the parties' respective policies. They have set the narrative and sucked the whole life from the rest of the campaign.

I have to admit to not watching a single one, partly because of better things to do, partly because I believe they would be extremely depressing. What I have read and seen after each debate  has only increased my resolve to miss the next one. Instant polls taken from 20 people sat in a room eating crisps somewhere declaring who 'won', an instant judgement that is then seemingly cast in stone (has anyone ever met anyone who has taken part in one of these polls? Me neither. Where do they find them?); reams of articles judging each of the candidates as if they were auditioning on X-Factor, assessing the way they looked, their body language, the manner of their delivery; rentagob politicos declaring to any camera they can find that their man won hands down and the others were terrible, even if their man picked his nose and ate it and then bared his backside to camera during his closing speech.

All of this has been tough on the oldest and, well, ugliest candidate, the incumbent Gordon Brown. Regardless of what you think of him as a politician or his policies, to submit him to a glorified beauty contest is tantamount to cruelty. Brown is rough-hewn - he has a reputation for being grumpy and looks it, but then he is blind in one eye from a childhood illness, which also left one side of his face slightly paralysed. He possesses an horrible rictus smile which simply oozes insincerity. He has little or no charm when it comes to dealing with the common man or woman. In probably the most defining moment of the campaign so far, while pressing flesh in the North of England, he encountered an elderly woman who used to vote Labour, the party Brown leads, but, like many other followers, is a bit fed up after 13 years of sucking up to the rich and wideboy Texans in the White House, as well as other gripes. She harangued him and Gordon, while looking as comfortable as a Hippopotamus in a power shower, took his medicine, and tried to assuage her concerns, despite one of these being an illogical and pretty nasty rant at the amount of immigrants 'flocking' into the country. The last bit shocked Brown, who also has a hearing problem. Let's just say he thought she said something stronger than 'flocking immigrants.'

He got into his car. This is where it got a bit gruesome. He was wearing a radio mic and forgot to turn it off. He harrumphed that his encounter had been a disaster. Someone asked why and he said the woman was 'bigoted.' Had the mic belonged to the BBC then the conversation would never have left the car, as Beeb rules forbid it broadcasting anything picked up in private on one of its mics. But it didn't. It belonged to Sky News. Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, also owner of lovely 'Fair and Balanced' Fox news. I think you can guess what happened next. The conversation relayed to the world, howls of outrage from the Conservative press,  and a penitent Brown dragged back to apologise to the old dear, while 'Bigot-gate' rumbled on an on. The press are still camped outside the poor woman's front door, while tabloids have offered countless thousands to hear her slay the Prime Minister. So far the bidding has reached £50,000, led by The Sun (proprietor: R. Murdoch) but she admirably shows no sign of caving in. I'm told it's a matter of time, however.

Apparently Brown tried to make a joke of it in last night's final debate, but he does humour like Edward Scissorhands does banjo. The leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister in waiting (and darling of Sky News and The Times, proprietor R. get the picture), David Cameron, was adjudged to have won by those watching on TV. Before you could say 'Nixon!', a poll emerged from those who had been listening on radio. They gave it to Brown. Needless to say the press ignored the radio poll and led with the TV verdict, just like The Sun ignored a survey performed by its own pollsters which declared that 'Bigot-gate' had no influence over how they would vote, and instead proclaimed that the 'gaffe' (newspaper-speak for a balls-up) ensured the Prime Minister was 'Brown Toast'. Finished, for those who don't speak excruciating pun-ese.

The debates have had one positive effect, however. For decades the British parliamentary system has been dominated by Labour and Conservatives. The third party, the Liberal Democrats, have barely had a look-in, hindered by a ludicrous, unrepresentative first-past-the-post voting system that rewarded them with comparatively few seats given their share of the vote, and awards control of the country to a party for whom almost two-thirds of the population haven't voted for. The coverage of politics reflects this. Plenty of yah-boo sucks between the two main parties, interspersed with a few vaguely patronising mentions of the Libdems, as they are known. During the first debate, voters, who are fed up and bored of two parties squabbling like kids, promising the earth in opposition, then letting them down in power, mired in sleaze and incompetence, in hoc to the rich, keen to send troops to die for reasons spurious, saw the Libdem leader Nick Clegg, young, presentable, rising above the fray, and liked what they saw. He seemed new, fresh. He and his party shot up in the polls. They remain buoyant, in some lying second ahead of Labour, even if our barmy system will guarantee them less seats despite a larger share of the vote.

As I predicted in an earlier blog, the right-wing press trained their guns on Clegg and his party and fired both barrels. It seem to have had little effect, though there is still time for the drip-drip of false allegations to trickle down.  The likelihood is still a hung parliament, with no party in overall power. Polls show many people welcome this, forcing the parties to work together to solve our problems, rather than setting themselves in direct opposition. The price of Libdem support for whichever of the other two parties tries to form a coalition will be reform of our voting system, which, in my humble opinion, will have a transformatory effect on our politics. At last our vote will count. Mr Murdoch and his pals disagree. Coalition governements are anti-democratic, they say. Lots of smoke-filled rooms and shady haggling. The markets will go into meltdown. The last is trotted out with depressing regularity. Acknowledgement that democracy is a sham; that a group of unelected bankers and spivs decide the course of our politics, not the people.

Next Friday I'll be able to give you the result. I'm an Anyone-but-the-Conservatives voter. People appeared to have forgotten the royal mess they made during their last period of Government. People who are sick of needless wars seem willing to vote in a party who were even more in favour of those needless wars than the Government that took us into them. People who are sick of the greed of unelected bankers directly impinging on the wealth and welfare of us all are willing to vote in a party which is even deeper in the pockets of big business than any of their rivals. A party which claims to have changed, when all it has done to alter its nasty image is install a Tony Blair clone as leader, and keep quiet about any policies it my have lest it scares the voters, and focus entirely on style, coupled with a belief that after 13 years of Labour Government the voters will be ready for a change (a word Mr Cameron uses at least three times in every sentence. As the cliche goes, if voting changed anything, they'd ban it.)

Like Blair, Cameron is an oleaginous smoothie, all smarm and no substance. The fact he seems to believe in nothing is not an impediment. In fact, it's an asset. Principles are inconvenient things when faced with power. Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, and a man who was pilloried by the Tory press for his ginger hair, his Welshness and his verbosity (The Welsh Windbag he became known) once famously said a few days before his defeat to Mrs Thatcher:  '[If Mrs Thatcher wins] I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.' Well, now televised leadership debates have arrived in the UK, I have a message for budding Prime Ministers. 'I warn you not to be ugly. I warn you not to be bald. I warn you not to be fat. I warn you not to be old.'


Dan - Friday


  1. Great blog as usual! Equally sad is that a conservative Republican in Minnesota got a boost in the race for the Republican nomination for Governor by getting an endorsement from Sarah "hockey mom" Palin. She enthused that he was a "hockey dad"!

    I love the top photo. Seems as though the candidates are warming up for a kick-step dance.

  2. Cheers Stan - it's a great one isn't it?

    Such is Gordon Brown's luck he'll probably end up getting a Republican endorsement, which over here will be as popular as him catching a coldsore and then kissing babies.

  3. Dan- I'm sorry that the peculiar institution of the presidential debate has been imported to England. The genre was invented by the JFK wonder kids who realized that Nixon would also be toast up against the telegenic and quick-witted Kennedy.

    More presidential debates have been awful than good. Bush versus Al Gore was the battle of the dimwit against the lethally boring. Bush against John Kerry was a repeat with Bush playing the same role and Kerry filling in for Gore. The first Bush against Bill Clinton was a game changer. Clinton was as telegenic and quick-witted as Kennedy and Bush looked old. That killed his chance at re-election.

    As I am sure everyone withing range of a television is aware, we have a president who exudes grace, intellect, poise, and confidence and, while not as naturally funny as Kennedy, he is even more eloquent. My daughter saw him in his limousine one day in New York and said, "Seeing him is like Prozac." Neither of us has ever taken Prozac but I understood what she meant.

    I can not vote for a Republican; to do so would violate all my principles. And, given the Republicans who have been candidates since I was 21, I have never even been tempted. McCain, a man of undisputed honor, was the worst of the bunch.

    A vote for Bush Jr. was really a vote for Dick Cheney, a cross between Darth Vader and Doctor Strangelove. Some of us think there was something of the devil thrown in. He was such an easy man to hate and junior was such an easy man to despise.

    McCain was desperate; everything he had ever wanted was within touch. McCain, the son and grandson of admirals in the US navy and a graduate of the Naval Academy, was not a man who would have taken Hillary Clinton seriously as a presidential candidate. He would never have imagined that a woman could defeat a man in a presidential election. Then, he finds himself facing a man, a man the camera and the crowds loved. At first, it would not have seemed a problem. As gifted as Obama is, his race should have been an insuperable obstacle. But it wasn't and McCain had to come up with a game changer. If women would have voted for Hillary, then they would vote for any woman and so we got Sarah. And thanks to Rupert Murdoch, there doesn't seem to be any way we can make her go away. She is now a political analyst for Murdoch's Fox News that is always "fair and balanced".

    It is this fair and balanced news source that still talks about the death panels that are part of Obama's health care reform plan. They still lead the birther movement, insisting that Obama was actually born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be president. (He was born in Hawaii and I'm not sure if most Fox followers realize it is a state). And, of course, they also demand that he reveal that he is a Muslim. Fox is the most watched news source in the United States and if that isn't terrifying, I don't know what is.

    Racism is now worse than it has been since the Civil Rights Act in the early 1960's. Fox/Murdoch plays on the fears of the white majority who will be the white minority by 2050. Political discussion on the right is hate speech. The Republicans have not voted in favor of any legislation Obama has sent to Congress since his inauguration.

    One of the worst of the hate-mongers is Rush Limbaugh, who has a radio phone-in show. Murdoch can't be blamed for him. He calls his fans "ditto heads" and they are too stupid to realized they are being insulted. Rush is letting them know that they have given over all independent thought to his control.

    The top picture is deserving of an award.


  4. Dan - Hilarious coverage of the tragicomedy of national politics. The best possible outcome of all elections, I've decided, is stalemate. The less government can accomplish, the less they can ball up. If I had my way, every legislature in this country would have a very slender majority belonging to the opposite party of the governor, and maybe they'd all be unable to pass budget bills. Since American politicians, at least, are incapable of cutting a single penny from any established budget, this might be an advantage.

    Get rid of all of them and get some amateurs in there. If I had my way every professional politician in the world would be trapped beneath a giant bell jar and fed a diet of issues, and we could use the gas they produce to power the world. And that includes the politicians about whom I personally feel a momentary enthusiasm.

  5. When my family lived in Australia, we had to deal with the preference voting system which the country enjoys. You vote for ALL the candidates in order of your preference. The candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the votes where he or she had first preference are then distributed to the second preference and so on.
    My father - also a mathematician - used to make it a point of honour to try to vote for the candidates in reverse order so that his preferences would be distributed the maximum number of times. The only exception he made was that he would always try to vote against the majority party at the end of the process.
    It actually is a very fair system in principle, avoiding the sort of problems the libdems have to overcome in the UK. However, the system does have a downside. In the case of state wide senate elections, five senators are elected by this method at a time from a single ballot. It sometimes takes so long to distribute all the preferences and work out all the results, that by the time the result is announced, no one cared about it except the candidates.

  6. Michael - The Australian system makes me dizzy. In the US we have people who claim they don't vote because pulling a lever after pushing a button is too confusing.

    We did have the hanging chad system in Florida in the 2000 election. Those voters who didn't push the pin all the way through had their votes discounted if they voted for one candidate and their votes counted if they voted for the other. The Republican Florida secretary of state decided who won. Democrats got mad and her decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The justice who made the decision as to the winner was appointed by the father of the Republican candidate.

    So Bush was appointed president, not elected president but it is Obama who the Republicans refuse to support because his candidacy was unconstitutional. That view is based on the belief that Kenya and Hawaii are the same place.


  7. Beth, don't think that the Australians all understand their system either. And it's married with another interesting rule. Once you've registered as a voter, you HAVE TO VOTE. Otherwise you have to explain or pay a fine. So quite a few people turn up at the polls and fill in the numbers from 1 to whatever in order. This is called the "donkey vote". Candidates from small parties were in the habit of changing their surnames to "Aardvark" and the like. Now the names are listed in random rather than alphabetical order.

  8. Thanks for the comments chaps and chapesses. Beth, I remember the last US election being followed with almost the same interest by us Brits as our own. Of course it wasn't, but it seemed truly like the forces of good against evil, hope against cynicism. The quote about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose seemed particularly apt. I hope Obama proves to be as adapt at the prose as he was at the poetry. As for Limbaugh et al, there's a great programme here, on a little known BBC channel, called Newswipe, presented by Charlie Brooker (look on YouTube.) Through a caustic English prism, he tackled Fox and dear old Bill O'Reilly, what a despicable man, and the ludicrous Glenn Beck. Unfortunately, people like this and their popularity reinforce the view among some of my less travelled countrymen that everyone in the US is a zealous religious swivel-eyed crazy.

    Michael, of course, when vote to change the voting system over here, which I hope we do, we then have the decision on which system to choose and I can see that being an interesting one. Preference, alternative vote, oh the joys to come...

    Tim, I agree, amateur politicians would be idea, ones with real lives and a rounded view of the world. However, the concern would be that the only ones able to hold down a job and give up time to politics are the sort of rich gents who get paid for non-executive directorships and the like, and we'd end up with a bunch of toffs in charge.