Warming Up the Rubber Chickens

I don’t often agree with Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South and Twtter ‘attack dog’. Lovely chap, probably, and a Doctor Who fan like me, so there should be some level of understanding between us; (I’ll check by way of these stock answers;

1) Patrick Troughton
2) Chiwetel Ejiofor
3) The sonic screwdriver
4) Still nowhere near as bad as RTD
5) I don’t think anyone, from producer downwards, actually knows what was blowing up the TARDIS in Series 5, so let’s just leave it as that)

Harris recently wrote against the leaders debate, those moments of “groundbreaking”/”useless” televisual delights from 2010, around which the general election of that year appeared to orbit. And like Harris, I would rather they never happened again.

I’ve written against the debates before and indeed hindsight suggests that even when writing about them at the time, there was an underlying sense of their uselessness. Looking back three years as we stand approximately two years away from the next general election and it all looks clear; repeating the leaders debates would be a huge mistake.

As a Liberal Democrat – and a small l liberal, no less – my default setting is “reform”.  There’s no cog or wheel of the British democratic system, which doesn’t need fixing. Our voting system is broken, our unwritten constitution needs writing, our Parliament needs reducing in size (and one part of it needs scrapping completely), the relationship between local government and local electors requires serious repair, and so on, etc, forever. Of course “leaders debates” seemed part of the solution back in 2010, within the context of the expenses scandal and total collapse in respect for politicians. They could even help decide the result, mixing in the “West Wing at Westminster” attitude Tom Harris writes about.

The debates had been part of the “reform” process, though as we look back, they’ve enacted more damage than repair.

Harris is not the first MP to bemoan the presidential manner of our elections. Shirley Williams and Anne Widdecombe used their allotted time with Jeremy Paxman during the 2005 general election programme on BBC One to do just that; and the then Ms Williams did much the same on the 1987 equivalent [yes, I’m the kind of person who watches general election reruns on YouTube. Judge me, go on.]  The British system has always been in danger of turning presidential, and it wasn’t specifically Tony Blair in 1997 who accelerated the process. By 1979 the media had already chosen to focus on the suitability of individuals as Prime Ministerial material in the context of that decade’s political and social unrest, with little in the way of opposition for them doing so. Margaret Thatcher’s handbagging of all and any opponents (usually within her own party), increased the importance of figureheads in the British system, despite that very system not being built to suit such a system.

By 1997, the PR driven “New Labour” campaign took advantage of the accelerated media let attitude towards presidential style politics. Forget the 650-ish individual fights across the country, many of which are interesting, complex, charged contests, it’s all about the money shots; three British party leaders getting on open-topped bus…(no, no, no, they get on helicopters and get cheered on arrival by hundreds of specially invited/vetted guests).

The good old days election campaigns which Harris invokes – men dressed as rubber chickens following candidates down the road being one of the great British traditions – are increasingly rare. That’s something to mourn. Like most people I want – expect even – a proper and thorough election campaign, something the leaders debate actively destroyed. They weigh down the efforts of all other candidates, blocking their efforts like the school bully standing guard at the top of the stairs or the toilet doors. Everything which the British system used to focus upon – the local contests in marginal seats, the make do and mend campaigns with cash-strapped associations – have been gradually pushed off camera. Little wonder that some people with whom I used to work assumed that the role of Prime Minister was directly elected.

Maybe this is nostalgia. Or senility. Nobody wants to become the old men huddled around pub tables moaning how music doesn’t quite sound like it did, and the last thing any political nerd wants to do is turn into an auto-anecdote robot; (“Oh, when Guildford declared first in 1974 you just KNEW things were going to change.”). But there’s a lot to be said for the low-rent, small change, and yes, honest way British elections used to be run. Let’s try to tempt one or two genies back into the bottle. The media must be persuaded to stop treating elections as Prime Ministerial bunfights, though political parties will also need to disable most of their machinery too. There are hundreds of MPs whose fights against placard waving, chicken suit wearing, leaflet waving protesters are ignored because of the bright lights of three (plus one) party leaders and their choreographed routines.

I can’t bring back cheesy 90s dance, or decent storylines to Neighbours (or Doctor Who for that matter), but sure as damnit I can try to move British elections back to Britain….Even if it means aligning myself to Tom Harris…

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