Bad days at the electoral office

Back at the faroff long-agos, the BBC would take up by-election reporting with gusto, putting Dimbles and Peter Snow in a room with two MPs hoiked against their will from the escalators at Hammersmith Tube for an evening of chat and analysis. The fondest held memory is Snow taking the 60% vote share of a comfortable victory and, “just for fun”, extrapolating how the country would vote were that the norm across the land. And with that, the credits would roll and they would all sink off to whichever club BBC personalities went to in the 1980s with….Well, I don’t think this sort of innuendo is allowed anymore, is it?

Anyway, the Beeb prefer to show repeats of “Hardtalk” and dual-broadcasts with BBC World Service nowadays, so amateur psephologist types do the analysis themselves across the nerdier parts of the Internet, across messageboards, chatrooms and invariably Twitter. It saves on paying Peter Snow to walk through greenscreen rooms pretending to stomp over the Home Counties like a gentleman Godzilla, doesn’t it?

These versions of the art of chin-stroking by-election results aren’t exactly neutral, but at the best of times parliamentary by-elections are crap shoots from which comfort is garnered from whoever wants garnering. On that turn of the sixpence, here’s my take on November’s democrogry.

Manchester Central

That sticky out bit is Moston, which would stretch the definition of both “Manchester” and “central”, if you were looking at the map for the first time. Maybe that’s number 101 in the top 100 reasons for the plummet in turnout, people not being aware that “Manchester Central” referred to the whole council area, not just the glass-and-chrome city centre?

Okay, so actually the record breaking turnout, for all the wrong reasons, has more in keeping with ‘central’ constituencies having a tendency to do this, such as Liverpool’s Riverside and Leeds’ Central, where Hilary “son of Tony” Benn was elected on a barely respectable 19%. It’s worth remembering that Manchester Central had the lowest turnout of all the constituencies which fought at the general election. Any such disinterest/apathy is worrying, for it opens the door to extremists and complacency, but it’s as much a right to turn up as it is not to, and the good folk of Manchester know how to make themselves heard when they need to. Incidentally, this was the lowest turnout in peace-time, with the war-affected Poplar by-election of 1942 registering exactly half that which came out here. As wise men often say, makes you think.

Let’s deal with what we need to deal with first. Didn’t Respect do terribly? Only 1% of the vote and beaten by Pirates. In what will be a notice we return to later, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition performed particularly badly, but with less name recognition than Respect (George Galloway), it’s surprising to see them score so highly here. By the way, in 2010, the Manchester ballot paper gave voters the choice of Socialist Labour, Socialist Equality or Workers Revolutionary, and they all lost their deposits too. Maybe there’s not that much of a lefty streak here after all? Unless there’s too much lefty choice to go round, obvz. (Surely not?)

Yes, Ed Miliband’s bag carrier Lucy Powell won handsomely. There was no betting shop this side of the moon who thought it otherwise, though the sharp increase in vote shows a real kickback after the Cleggmania surge of two years previously. The Liberal Democrat slump has been well reported and recorded. Yes, it’s a record drop, the furthest drop since the party was formed in the year 1988 and by most measures amongst the worst “Liberal” performance for generations. Reasons? There’s plenty. We’re the party of protest now being protested against, for one thing, and at times of economic uncertainty there will always be targets. Note how the Conservatives fell from over 4,700 votes to 754, just as much a poke in the eye as they’d ever get in Manchester. They remain without a single councillor at Manchester Town Hall.

This is the only by-election of the six not to see UKIP save its deposit, a point which has been swept aside by the wave of relative success they were to have elsewhere. The increase of 3% put them almost above the Conservatives, which I guess is what you might call a clue in a narrative arc.

Cardiff South and Penarth
The word here was “yawn”. Or the Welsh translation. Google suggests “dylyfu”.

Here in the southern swathe of the Welsh capital, refurbished and regenerated beyond recognition, attached to one of the few Conservative certainties in South East Wales. The result when it came was pretty much ‘as was’, a sort of holding pattern rather than a result. Labour held on, vote going up by 8.4, whilst the Conservatives fell back by the same measure. This widening gap between the top two wasn’t particularly odd on the day, even within the context of highly unpopular PCC elections. There was a steep drop for the Liberal Democrats, again par of the course, although the 10% vote share is a highly resilient figure going forward.

Both Plaid and UKIP moved forward, the latter saving one of their five deposits, making a good case for themselves in a seat which they gained only 2.6% at the election. The Plaid result should be seen in the context of the Welsh Assembly, perhaps as an indication of how different devolution has treated the nationalist parties. The surge enjoyed here retained the deposit they lost two years previously, a mark of how un-nationalist Cardiff is compared with the places across the North where the party speaks its language – literally – to much greater effect.

The only other thing to note in this quiet election is the Communist candidate gaining seventeen – count them – votes from his bottom place two years previously. 
What do we deal with first – Louise Mensch or Mr Mozzarella?

Remember when David Davies had a rush of ambition to the rectum, flouncing off to stand in Haltenmprice and Howden as a make-pretend Liberal Democrat? Well looky-here. Corby became the next location for an unnecessary by-election, and with it came a host of jokers and knaves to bother the printing presses (which is good for Corby, where the trouser press has been in good use for some time).

Let’s start at the bottom up, shall we?  The United People’s Party landed rock bottom last, under a party formed by the former editor of the Independent as a group created to re-examine what democracy means in the 21st century. It managed thirty-five votes, which is about a third less than David Bishop managed, standing for “Elvis Loves Pets”. I think we can draw our own conclusions, here, can’t we children?

The map above should give you a clue as to why Corby tends to go with whoever ends up winning the election. The blob at the north-west is Corby itself, all industrial and manufacturing and vaguely Scottish. The great swathe of otherness is East Northamptonshire, all tiny villages and handful-shized towns where people work every hour God sends to prepare for an appearance on Masterchef Professionals.  Lots of gastropubs in the rurals you know, why do you think Mr Mozzarella of the Just Eat franchise stood here?

Actually, why *did* he stand here? I don’t think he had any choice, like those page 3 girls who stood as “Miss Great Britain Party” candidates a few years ago in Britain’s most worrying brush with exploitation-as-democracy in some time. Anyhoo, there’s no surprise that the squashed up blob of Corby tends to outvote the rural expanse at times when Labour are on the rise, and the Conservatives do the reverse all other times. Point in fact – the Tories won here in 1992 with 44.5% of the vote in a 4-pronged race; Louise Mensch managed 42.2% under the same circumstances ballot paper wise in 2010. Give Labour over a dozen of candidates and what happens – nearly half of the votes cast, and that’s without anyone misunderstanding how to use AV.

The unfortunate loss of the LibDems deposit was by the very slimmest of margins. The party needed only 10 more votes to be absolute sure of keeping the £500, losing as they did by scoring 4.96% of the vote, not enough to keep the money. If there’s anything to like about the Corby result, it’s  the BNP result, something we should mention now in case I forget. Who loses when voters go to the polls for no good reason in the middle of an economic thunderstorm? Not the far-right, who fell back 3 points here to just 1.7, a collapse in real terms from 2,525 votes in 2010 to only 614 this month. By any measure, that’s a complete collapse, and it couldn’t possibly happen to a nicer bunch of people.
Lessons learned? That “the road to Downing Street runs through Corby” isn’t that bad a slogan, as it goes, and clearly the Conservatives are not safe in the semi-rurals after two years of trying to sound like it. With the narrative arc in full flow, notice how UKIP (2010 result – n/a) finished with over 5,000 votes, which isn’t bad from a standing start, unless your a Conservative in similar bellwether seats chewing your nails. 
A point about the Greens, while we’re at it. There is a place in British politics for a Green Party, though it doesn’t seem to fit that they have a place within British politics outside Brighton. Unless they have deeper pockets than we all realise, how can they afford so many terrible results across the country, even in the bizzarro-world of by-elections?
Croydon North
London elections are a bit special, let’s get that out of the way. With the assumption that all the media and its dogs prefer London to anywhere else in the country, more candidates stand in London elections on average than anywhere else in the country. It’s not just a population thing, London attracts candidates because the London-based media is attracted to places it can travel to on a single flash of their Oyster cards and expenses forms.

To show this in full colour, Croydon North attracted Simon Lane (“nine eleven was an inside job, and also capital letters are symbols of the illumniati”), Lee Jasper, Winston McKenzie and a Conservative with cerebral palsy who chose charity work over massive research job salary packets. So bonkers, all told, and that’s without mentioning that there was an official Monster Raving Loony candidate, whose website proudly declares him to be pro-cuts, pro-Coalition, and pro-Prince Harry.

Dealing with the LibDem collapse first, then, and here it was only then 10 percentage points, and a lost deposit. Not good, though I’m  not one of the voices wailing into my FOCUS newsletters. Our candidate has a proven record elsewhere in London and was a refreshing voice on the one phone-in I heard via Croydon’s community radio station. She was also, by the by, the only woman on the ballot paper, something of a surprise in London. Is Croydon statistically more male than any other London Borough? Or is a call from Julia Gillard needed?

Here’s the thing. It’s not Marisha Ray’s fault that her vote collapsed, or that the number of LibDem voters fell from over 7,000 to under 900. This was a very odd election, in a very odd part of the country, where by-elections always attract mammoth ballot papers. This election had Winston McKenzie and Lee Jasper fighting it out for attention and ego points, and when both have reason to go after Labour’s candidate from different angles, there’s going to be a squeeze. That squeeze came on us, and whilst I accept we have our part to play in explaining or justifying the Coalition’s record, I can’t see this result or others on the same day being some form of coordinated punishment. There was a lot of issues, direct and otherwise, coming down on Croydon in the run-up to the election and it shows in the vote changes of other parties, not just us.

Let’s look at UKIP, who didn’t soar as they did elsewhere. From 891 votes to 1,400 in one leap is hardly a measure of success, even with a high profile and provocative candidate. Winston McKenzie has already switched party to party to party before, even standing as a Veritas candidate at one point, and this doesn’t help his credibility very much. The gay outburst (that is, an outburst about gays, not an outburst which was a bit camp) probably bruised liberals more than it did his election chances, if we’re honest. All the same, it’s an indication that UKIP hasn’t got it right in London.

The Labour surge is impressive. It’s a marked up-shot, adding eight percentage points onto an already commanding lead. The significant drop in Conservative share can’t be just ‘a UKIP thing’, so there has to be something in the movement between Labour and LibDem votes. I can’t see much leakage going to the minority candidates, especially not from the Conservatives – notice how the National Front only managed 161, about the same number of votes in a single block of flats. I’ve not seen anybody question whether Andrew Stranack was somehow abandoned by voters because of his disability, and indeed few people brought up Steve Reed’s sexuality, so maybe there are reasons to be cheerful. Here, as in Corby, the Greens struggled in a crowded field.

Let’s go back to the TUSC lot, for the start. In times of economic hardship and disquiet with the ruling government, where do people go? The opposition, yes, but one kind? In my lifetime protest movements seemed to rely on the fringes, and indeed the anti-war movement could only survive with help from the non-aligned movement who were aided and assisted by the left and hard-left. Stop the War and associated protest groups were founded and moulded by the socialist groups who had been sent to the margins in between moments of greatest unrest.

For whatever reason, and there’s  bound to be plenty, the TUSC grouping of left/hard-left groups just hasn’t made itself known to a wide audience. In a seat like Rotherham, in a time like ours, to gain so little is not good at all. It’s plain embarrassing, and I say that as a LibDem about to talk on our 8th place.

The protest votes for the whole went into three directions – UKIP, BNP and Respect. I’m not going to lie here, I don’t think UKIP are fascists in suits or knuckle draggers. They’re not fruitcakes, or loonies or whatever David Cameron called them. What UKIP is made up of, mostly, is disgruntled people, and disgruntled people without a clear direction of travel. Under Nigel Farage, they’ve become a party of Europe not wanting to be in Europe, turning up to claim expenses without putting in any work. In the UK, they are political pygmies, without a single elected Councillor, without a single elected MP, without a single elected anybody. Using the old BNP trick of co-option onto tiny minute parish councils, UKIP can claim to have some kind of representation outside Brussels, but this doesn’t wash with most folk who know their onions and their bendy bananas.

What UKIP actually want, or how they managed to get 22% of the vote here without explaining anything, is the real question. The adoption scandal broke with exceptionally good timing.  It was used to get sympathy for both the parents, and the candidate. Why the lack of success? Jane Collins is not George Galloway, and Rotherham is not Bradford. Crucially, perhaps, Nigel Farage is not Galloway either. There’s a lot of bom, but not enough bast. Whilst George can speak with passion and target that passion to something relevant (usually the Labour Party), Nigel is too eager to use “Europe” as a codeword for anything and everything, and it will put off swing voters. “Europe” as a catch-all is not a popular electoral subject, as many polls have shown, and people are not made more popular by talking about it again and again and again.

So, then, the Liberal Democrats. What do we blame? That our candidate was a bloke with a ponytail? Well, it might be a reason, keep hold of it. Again, I’m not going to wear a black cap here and call time on us all. This was a bonkers byelection even by most standards of these things. We had the adoption case, Labour’s controversial stitch-up/selection, high profile Yvonne Wilson, and a candidate called Clint who came with backing from the English Defence League. We would always find high profile elections like this hard, moreso in government. We suffered a lot, in many ways more than we did in Manchester. In fact the 2.1% we ‘gained’ here is the worst result, of any mainstream party, in any by-election in recorded history for a mainland constituency. What I am certain of is that this was just a kick in the shins as part of a very complex and unpredictable election. We’re not going to be srtuffed like this again.

It’s notable that the BNP, whilst saving a deposit, which is very rare for them (only 4 ever in their history), it came with a short drop in the share of the vote. Clearly they are not attracting votes like they used to, and should no longer be the bogeymen of British politics. Using the BNP as some kind of scare tactic is nonsense when they’re clearly so unpopular, toothless and broke. Look at the figures – UKIP at over 4,600 votes from 2,220, whilst BNP slipped from 3,906 to 1,804. That is a party in decline, here and in Manchester and elsewhere, and there wasn’t many elsewheres for a group with such little money. If this month has shown the death of anything, it’s the demise of the BNP.


Give Peace a chance.

By-elections are theatre. Nobody knows who will turn up to stand, or to vote, and as such there’s no real guarantee that the result will marry up with the opinion polls of the day. This is why Peter Snow was so funny in going “just for fun” when taking the election result from one constituency across the country. There’s no such thing as uniform behaviour, much less uniform swing.

Here in Middlesbrough the election seemed to carry out its business without much publicity. Croydon had big names in Lee and Winston and Rotherham had scandal, walk-outs and Yvonne Ridley. So away from all that, the ‘Boro just had candidates standing for election without the media taking much notice.

The result was another disaster for TuSC, who claim to speak for the working class, and BNP, who do the same with a different accent. Neither showed much chance of a break through, less so the BNP who lost 4 percentage points to lose over 1,600 votes in real terms.

The success of Labour needs framing in context, too. Sir Stuart Bell didn’t hold a single constituency surgery for years following an physical attack, which attracted criticism all the same for being dismissive of his constituents. It’s not for nothing that the winning candidate saw his vote share climb from under 50% to above 60%. Voters do notice this sort of thing, you know.

A saved deposit for the LibDems may seem out of the storyline somewhat, although it’s worth remembering that the candidate and his team were behind the success in Redcar next-door. Good campaigners show their mark in many ways, not least a saved deposit and a better overall result than the Conservatives.

And then we get to Imdad Hussain and the Peace Party. No, me neither. Indeed, nobody really knew who this former Labour councillor was until the results were announced. Any clues? Well he was embroiled in a bit of a scandal and defected, although why he went here rather than Respect is anyone’s guess. What we do have is a nice electoral quirk to finish up with – the first time that the Peace Party had saved a deposit, a slice of the unpredictable nature of this business we call politics.

Just for fun, you understand, we ran these results through a super computer, and do you know what it said? Wait until 2015, when the votes really mean something.

Have passport, will travel, won’t legislate

I’m no fan of Nadine Dorries, the Mid Bedfordshire MP whose time in the Australian jungle on prime-time ITV was meant to teach the basics of abortion law to an audience ignorant of politics via the processes of eating an ostrich anus. (I could at this point say ‘she was lying with cockroaches rather than sitting on the backbenches with them, but let’s not go there….)

Her inappropriate trip abroad rightly saw her punished and stripped of the Party Whip, the significance of which might filter down to her when she’s stopped catching up with her constituent’s emails whilst lazying in a luxury hotel.

And then, from the other side of the Commons, along comes a man to usurp the scourge of abortion clinics and horny teenagers everywhere in the pursuit of passport-stamping.

Hendrick has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons by way of the hitherto obscure “All Party Parliamentary China Group”, who seem to promote on their website press-releases from other government departments whilst not doing anything themselves. The MP for Preston is called “an officer” of the Group, but one seemingly without portfolio.

Well, the former MEP for Lancashire Central has found something to do without a portfolio, and has found it to the great cost of £43,211. He has spent four months  – FOUR, count them Nadine, you amateur! – away from his Preston constituency, presumably acceptable to his Labour colleagues on Preston Council because they’ve chosen not to say anything against him in public. (At least Nadine’s party colleagues grumbled to the press; Preston’s Labour Group have been silent.)

Oh wait a minute, maybe they have said something about his conduct. Earlier this year they had to grumble and groan because he’d forgotten that his constituency has something called a Guild once-every-twenty-years, calling his decision to wander back to Preston on a whim an embarrassment. An MP since the year 2000, he should by now have been told that it’s tradition for Prestonians to mark the Guild from the start.

There’s nothing on his personal website or the APPCG site which explains why Hendrick has to take so much time away from being an MP for Preston. It’s reminiscent of the worst days of arrogance from parliamentarians, who considered a safe seat (majority 7,733 in 2010, down from 12,268 in 2001) to be a platform from which they launched a totally separate career. At least Nadine said she was leaving her constituency duties to talk about politics (or at least try to, good job ITV editors). What does Mark Hendrick say? Well, from what I can see, nothing.

His predecessor as Labour MP was Audrey Wise, for whom the term ‘firebrand’ might as well have been her given first name. The difference between them is beyond comprehension. From being the MEP for the area, Mark has now become the MP for jollies and junkets, so distant from the Ribble that he almost forgot about the Guild. Is it any wonder that his share of the vote has plummeted in the ten years between first election and the most recent? Voters are aware of his jet-set lifestyle even if he isn’t aware of them.

Even if the ‘zombie review’ does get voted through, Preston’s constituency boundaries give any Labour candidates a headstart. Hendrick could spend four weeks out of every five drinking at Ambassador’s parties without suffering much at all. It’s this complacency and arrogance which marks him out the most. There’s no justification for his absence or the connected costs. There’s no justification for his jetting off to China without any reason or result published on-line. Preston already has very strong relations with China and elsewhere in Eastern Asia through the University of Central Lancashire and from their website it appears Mark Hendrick’s jet-setting adventures have no place in their achievements.

Safe seats foster ‘ownership issues’, and boy does Holidaying Hendrick come across as having those. Preston is not supposed to be the hotel he checks into every quarter whilst clocking up the airmiles. But it seems to be, and that can’t be something on which the local CLP can be silent on for much longer….can it?

Off the Register

As you might know if you’re an anorak of the highest order, to stand for election in Britain you need to register a political party with the Electoral Commission (at £150 a chuck, if I’m not mistaken). If you prefer “independent” you can just go for that, or like David Icke and Clint Bristow of the EDL you can choose to have no description at all, just a blank space in the ballot where voters could draw a smiley face.

The ‘churn’ of Registered Parties is administrative trivia which shows in some cases the deflated and defeated dreams of people who thought their political party would win the first elections to come their way.

Here is a summary from the election period onwards of parties whose names are no longer registered with the Commission, and with them pass the electoral dreams of so many….

*May 2012
“Anticapitalists – Workers Power”
“Beavers Cranford Party”
“Horbury Independent Political Party”
“Shepway Independents”
“Somali United Intellectuals Expatriates Democratic Party”
“Spiritual Unity Party”
“The Individual Reform Party”

*June 2012
“Downlands Residents Group”
“England First Party”
“Save King George Hospital”
“Socialist Studies Party (1904)”
“The Dover Alliance”

*July 2012
“Christian Party “Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship”
“Community Alliance”
“For Integrity and Trust in Government”
“Great Aycliffe Independents”
“Independent Republican Party”
“Romford Residents Association”
“Stone’s Independent Voice”

*August 2012
“Northumbria Party – The North East Party”
“Public Services Not Private Profit”
“Voice 4 Torbay”

*September 2012
“East Kilbride Alliance”
“Heart of Puriton”
“PLC Party”
“Protest Vote Party”
“United Unionist Coalition”

*October 2012
“East Dunbartonshire Independent Alliance”

*November 2012
“New Dawn”

Word of 2012

This has been the year which has seen media cannibalism: the Leveson inquiry and all which continues to fall from that, both merely implied and strongly hinted. It’s been a year of trust and mistrust, stretching around the world and filling both television screens and social media feeds.

Twelve months ago my word for the year summarised the prevailing mood of the time – what seems now as more of a flash than a precursor, although continued demonstrations in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere show the natural progression of whatever it was people planted in 2011. That word and its intent has been overtaken by one of its core principles, which is why I’ve chosen the destination as the word of the year, rather than the means by which it is sought.

“Justice” has wrapped itself around this year and continues to direct the news agenda. It’s been the heart of the matter and the guiding principles. On the football pitch (and considerable time spent off it), ‘justice’ has been the heart of the alleged racial abuse between players and amongst rivals. Across social media platforms, most notably Twitter, teenagers have been locked up for abusing celebrities, putting under strain the arguments of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘democratisation’ which underpins the popularity of new media.

In nations across the world, different definitions of injustice either fill our news pages or are conspicuous in not doing. Israel’s ‘pillar of strength’ operation against Hamas in Gaza is framed by whichever definition of ‘justice’ it is to which you subscribe. In the Australian Parliament, the injustice of sexism was put to the sword by Prime Minster Julia Gillard in the most unexpected viral video of the year. As Conservative MP Nadine Dorries learns the hard way that you can’t talk about politics whilst eating an ostrich’s anus on prime-time ITV, her pet subject of abortion reform was brought into stark focus in Ireland with the death of Savita Halappanavar, lifting even higher the position of justice within that notoriously difficult debate.

Anders Behring Breivik was jailed this year for his mass murder in Oslo and Utøya. His actions – and the sentence he might avoid were he considered unfit for trial – examined what we considered to be rightful justice. In Norway and in the UK, the death penalty argument was brought to light once again, setting against each other what each consider to be rightful justice.

“We need to see that justice is done” is a common politician’s refrain. The on-going MPs expenses scandal brings in questions of justice, certainly when members are arrested (or not) for fraud. The vexed issue of votes for prisoners, and the century-long debate on the injustice of unelected politicos sitting in the House of Lords, questions our nation’s definition of justice. Of course for many Conservative  MPs, the judgements from the European Courts strike at the very heart of British Justice, capital letters underlined in bold, standing proud over the tinier, illegitimate Johnny Foreigner Justice. How Britain deals with people like Abu Qatada – with or without European courts – reflects on how diluted or otherwise our justice system may well be. Parliament discussed the right to live – and the right to be born – as did British Courts.

For the BBC, the ‘justice’ sought by victims of Jimmy Savile and others has been the Corporation’s defining moment, causing again those who want the wholesale abolition of Auntie to take their chance in making the case. Somehow the Savile case has caused ripples across the country into most unexpected areas. I have to be very careful in how I phrase this, as I don’t wish to be sued, so I’ll just say that “People who should not have been accused of wrongdoing were wrong accused of wrongdoing and that was wrong.”

Across Europe the ‘sons of Occupy’ and connected relations continue to push against the economic and political establishment which rule their lives. In Spain, a theatre accepts carrots in lieu of payment, and of course Catalan independence is a drum beaten with the sound of the pursuit of justice. Elections in former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, shake the expected definitions of democratic representation. In Athens, supporters of Golden Dawn reject the establishment for ‘real’ justice as opposed to the establishment oppression (as they see it) in the age of austerity.

Last year, I chose “Occupy”. This year, “Justice”. I notice that the OED and others have considered ‘omnishambles’ to be the defining word of the year, which might be true for a narrowly defined Westminster village version of the ‘national word of our age’, but it doesn’t work as universal. Well, unless Mitt Romney had won, I suppose…

Nadine, you’re not a celebrity

Why do we want to put stars in our children’s eyes?

Nadine Dorries (MP, Mid-Bedfordshire), asked that very question in a blog, in which she defended her parental duties to protect her daughter against the explicit nature of the celebrity culture world on TV screens and (somewhat bizarrely) the Reading Festival stage. Indeed, Nadine, the celebrity culture world IS setting up our children for a fall, isn’t it?

Many moons ago, Channel 4 launched the British version of ‘Big Brother’. In its earliest years, ‘Big Brother’ did very little to accelerate the celebrity of those people who took part. Some made low-level impact in television presenting jobs and music careers. Suddenly, and without much warning, related reality television programmes appeared on all national channels which thrust unknowns into the spotlight – this wasn’t just a big cheque to a quiz show winner, this was a recording contract, this was glossy magazine photo opps, this was Hollywood treatment to a British postcode and the bright lights of fame and fortune shone directly into the hearts of people who wanted instant success for little work. And who wouldn’t want to have a celebrity career at a fingerclick?

On the flipside of all this, celebrities whose careers had faded through the years found themselves using the same processes to win back a little of the bright lights they thought were lost. Celebrity versions of Big Brother, Fame Academy and others made it acceptable to strip celebrities of most of their charm as a ‘payback’ for their desperation to return into the centre of people’s attention. They danced, sang and wandered around naked for the benefit of nobody but their own attempts to make it again in the changed celebrity world. This new reality, fed by and made for reality television, made celebrities as hungry for fame as the ordinary people who wanted more than a quiz show first prize.

The extreme conclusion of this is ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, the natural consequence for the urgency with which faded celebrities wanted coverage in the tabloids. ITV couldn’t have known  just how far they could push famous people to do whatever they asked. Insects were eaten, dung was swam through, flesh was revealed and dignities were prostituted. As long as office workers could guffaw on Monday morning about a has-been crunching on spiders, then the production team had done their job.

Viewing figures for “I’m a Celebrity…” topped 16 million people. That’s one of the highest viewing figures on British television, far over-shadowing the viewing numbers for most soaps. Up with other ITV stables such as “The X-Factor” and its predecessor “Pop Idol”, it’s a huge success story for advertisers, producers and celebrities alike.

Nadine Dorries is not a celebrity by many definitions of the term. She’s a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. At the 2010 election, just shy of 29,000 people voted for her to represent them, over 50% of those who voted. Those 29,000 people probably knew before hand that Nadine was a controversial and divisive figure. Her provocative views on abortion law reform has set her apart from many Conservative MPs. Perhaps most infamously, she attempted to take through the Commons an “abstinence Bill”, an old-fashioned, out-dated “won’t somebody think of the children” legislation.

She justifies taking a televised holiday in Australia to eat  kangeroo anus because politicians are considered out of touch, and that a potential audience of 16 million people want to be taught by her. She believes ITV would allow her to talk about abortion reform law. She could not be more wrong, and goodness knows she has been wrong plenty of times in her career. She’s misunderstood the point of a prime-time reality show if she thinks long speeches about abortion law would be shown amongst shots of models and pop stars camped around a bonfire. She’s misunderstood the point of prime-time reality programmes entirely if she thinks politicians can appear without production choices making them look embarrassing.

This isn’t to say that we should keep MPs on BBC Parliament and pop stars on ITV1. There is a need to make politics and politicians relevant to people today, especially young people. Nadine Dorries can speak about getting her fingernails dirty all she likes; the role of an MP is not to appear on a phone-in reality show where producers have all the power. With Parliament currently sitting, laws are being debated and voted on, and alongside those MPs from Sinn Féin who refuse to take their seats, Nadine Dorries is deliberately absent. That’s not a responsible act from an MP however you measure it.

I’m not against MPs getting out into the real world, but “I’m a Celebrity…” is not reality. Getting an MP to be a bin man for a week or sit in A&E is just as ‘finger nail dirtying’ as anything Nadine pretends will happen whilst being filmed eating a cockroach with a Page 3 model, and it’s more likely to produce something approaching respect with voters.

I doubt watching Nadine eating an arse rather than talking out of one will bring her into a new light. It won’t win her respect as an MP who is taking a holiday on full pay because she feels that nobody is listening to her on Question Time. Already semi-detached amongst her colleagues, the natural conclusion from her jaunt is a permanent exclusion from the Conservative Party. If she wanted to do the decent thing, her next job will be in the Chiltern Hundreds.

Auntie needs help

Jimmy Savile hid “in plain sight”, using his character as the perfect smoke-screen, taking his relationship with the BBC to its most extreme conclusion. The BBC as an institution was frightened of him, to the conclusion of being in awe, and from the initial controversy about his alleged behaviour the connected stories have questioned the very foundations of the corporation itself.

The resignation of George Entwistle has allowed the right-wing critics of the Beeb to run riot in today’s newspaper comment sections and connected blogs. Here’s the justification in swift follow-up to the real-terms cut in the licence fee to call for the BBC to be broken up, split apart and sold off. The Daily Telegraph calls the BBC “bungling”, and runs thought pieces by Norman Tebbit and Dan Hodges sharpening swords, carving knives. Influential blog ConservativeHome sets out the arguments for the natural conclusion to Entwistle’s resignation – sell off, break up, close down. The Guardian calls for the Beeb to be given “a bit of a slap”. Those on the left fire up their criticism of the BBC’s bias towards the Government’s austerity agenda, those on the right lay on thick their attacks against the perceived bias for Labour and Labour-leaning personalities.

When the Coalition froze the licence fee for six years – a real terms cut – the BBC had to start a fire-sale. Local radio has been slashed to the very bones, taking with it even Danny Baker whose BBC London show was scrapped for “financial reasons”. Popular shows on BBC Four were taken to the sword, repeats increased, high profile stars were jettisoned. Critics on both wings celebrated, and most loudly came cheers from the Right.

But the context of the BBC’s current malaise is framed not by Savile or alleged abuse of children in North Welsh children’s homes. The print media has taken tonnes of criticism through the Leveson Inquiry, every tabloid whipped into submission, the News of the World shut-down. Is it any wonder that the press are enjoying the slow, certain collapse of the BBC and its supporters? This is the best chance the print media has had to enact its revenge after months of Leveson related battering. The blessed Beeb allowed Savile to fiddle with young people in an entertainment establishment hush-up, don’t you know, and allowed for favourites in the industry to knock investigations into the long grass. AUNTIE IS A DEPRAVED TART!

I’ve been a cheer-leader for the BBC for my entire life, and I remain such today. I support the licence fee, and always have done. The crisis has been allowed to move away from generalities to specifics because the BBC and its supporters are too timid. The press shout loudest and the BBC whimpers. We’ve been here before – the demise of Greg Dyke’s role as DG against the false prospectus on which the country was taken into war in Iraq – and again the critics took the opportunity to call for a wider slashing of the corporation into bits. Sell off the radio stations, carve up the news organisation, shut down digital stations – then, as now, the best parts of the very best institution open for an auction at the earliest opportunity.

It didn’t happen then. It could happen now.

Of course massive editorial failings at the heart of “Newsnight” are to blame for some of the current malaise. They should be investigated. However Jimmy Savile managed to get away with his crimes, he did so with greater complacency than just within the grounds of the BBC. How much did the press know, and how many ‘friends’ of entertainment’s biggest names managed to manoeuvre claims against family favourites away from the front pages? These should be investigated too; it’s not just a BBC problem if a culture of silence hung over generations of investigative journalists whose contemporaries now calling the BBC to be torn to shreds.

The changing face of broadcasting in this country is a wider issue which should not be dragged into a debate about alleged child abuse and journalistic failings across more places than just the Newsnight offices. How people access television has changed forever – through iPlayer, through downloads, through streaming – and it’s up to all channels to adapt to these changes. The BBC has been at the forefront of adapting to new broadcasting realities, and all from a licence fee which is the best value television subscription package in the world. There has always been a small subset of people who resent the strength, depth and breadth of the BBC, and today they’re at the most confident. I’d be willing to put money on them being the most upset if they ever get their way.