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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Election 2010 – solitaire on speed

British elections have been known to throw up some unexpected, unusual results in the past – “They’ve elected a Labour government! The public will never stand for this…” – but polling day 2010 is something else entirely. It’s not just a shake-up of the political map; this was a deconstruction. When you order a bacon and egg sandwich, you do not expect to receive two thin slices of toasted brioche, a poached quails egg, slivers of Prosciutto, atop droplets of a tomato and basil jus….

Well, that is what seems to have happened on May 6th….

No patterns emerged. The anti-everything vote saw the Greens win Brighton Pavilion, their first ever MP; but saw both independents in Wyre Forest and Blaenau Gwent lose. George Galloway failed in his attempt to be re-elected; so did Esther Rantzen, who at one point was favourite to win Luton South. She barely reached 2,000 votes.

The north-east stuck solidly Labour, as would be expected. But hang on, there’s Redcar (REDCAR!), former seat of Mo Mowlam now LibDem controlled, the 2010 equivalent of Hove in 1997.

(It was Jeremy Paxman who spotted it first, in 1997, seeing “LABOUR GAIN HOVE” run across the bottom of his screen. “Are your ready to drink hemlock, yet, Mr Portillo?” )

The BNP were roundly, soundly, fantastically, undeniably defeated, struck down by sense and reason, hope not hate.

And now there is the hung parliament situation, with “grubby 1970s style deals”, to use the Daily Mail phrase. Nothing of the sort, of course, but then again Nick Clegg isn’t a baby eating Nazi. As Clegg has consistently said throughout the campaign, the party with the most votes and seats has been given the mandate to attempt to form a government. I still agree with Nick. The Conservatives won more votes and seats, Labour lost nearly 90 along the way, Gordon Brown cannot claim to have the moral argument on his side, never mind the mathematical one.

Simon Hughes told Radio 4 this morning that Tory and LibDem ideologies are, by their very nature, different. He sounded concerned, although not enough to put any credence to the rumours that he is about to defect to Labour.

In this new age, without a uniform swing, the idea that any party can exist in isolation is outdated nonsense. The choices Nick Clegg has to make this year are hard; our party does not have everything dove-tailed with the Conservatives, and the electoral arithmetic makes it almost impossible to join with Labour. Compromise and consensus are the watchwords; blind ideology has no place in this reshaped political situation.

I want Clegg to push through our fairness agenda into the governance of the country, whoever is ultimately in charge. Supporting a Conservative administration will be difficult for some to take; we may lose votes in the short-term, we may have arguments with our supporters and members to contend with in the coming months. Britain needs help – our economy is suffering after years of Labour misrule. Change is a concept, not just a word or slogan, and although there could yet still be a Labour minority administration, I just cannot support Brown continuing to run the country.

This mad, crazy sport of politics often elbows from the centre of the screen the real issues; there are people, employees, mothers, doctors, teachers, students, who need to know there is a government focusing on their needs. The closed doors behind which the talks are happening need to be opened soon. Whatever happens, let’s get on with running the country.