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. Mur...you 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.'