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…

thank you for your question

The time is two o’clock in the morning, the place is CSPAN, and the topic for discussion is Barack Obama mumbling and stuttering like teenagers embarking on the school’s production of Hamlet. Or public park chatting up of other teenagers. It was nervous, however you want to call it, and as every line he was supposed to say to his soon-to-be defeated opponent Mitt Romney had been rehearsed thousands of times before hand, this was not the act we had expected.

And that word ‘act’ is the problem. Leaders debates in the US remain by means of tradition and one-upmanship, not by means of democratic accountability for the President or his opponent. Everyone knows this – the television companies, the candidates, the viewers. It’s the same complicity which keeps Eurovision on television every year, for roundabout the same results. When the UK experimented with them for the first time in 2010, the result was an inflated, Internet-driven Cleggmania (oh how sweetly does nostalgia paint that recollection), and ultimately the first election result since February 1974 at which the talking heads of the good ship BBC declared, “The people have spoken, but we’re not entirely sure what they’ve said.”

My opinions towards leadership debates have undoubtedly hardened, and they’re undisputedly negative. The great breakthrough in the UK brought no tangible results. We got some new memes for messageboards and Twitter – “I agree with Nick”, “That’s a good question, Elaine”, and  “I met a one-legged black sailor in Brighton who promised he could get me some crack if I followed him just a little bit further, not long now, just about here,  not there, around the corner, he definitely said seventy quid, don’t follow him until I hear the sound of a car engine revving”.
There wasn’t any more great revelation during the three prime-time debates than we’ve experienced in any modern election campaign. It was more Kinnock on the beach than “Yes We Can.” Having convinced the party machines that another sprinkle of American political magic would work over here, the media were handcuffed to them regardless of results. When those results deflated like  a souflee in a cupboard, nobody could be blamed outside the television executives’ plush offices. Mary Berry would not be best pleased; as in the US, we ended up whipping up the batter too lightly and cooking the recipe on too low a heat. Nick Clegg wasn’t responsible for “I agree with Nick,” that was a cack-handed flirtation technique passed on like notes in a classroom, just with notes the size of novelty cheques for the whole country to see.

If the current trajectory of the Coalition continues to head euro-like into a ditch, and then through the ditch into the engine room at the middle of the Earth installed by the Daleks during their battle with Peter Cushing, leaders debates in 2015 would be even less advisable than David Cameron appearing on Celebrity Masterchef. We know the three leaders too well, now, and their traits are no good for that format. Clegg hasn’t lessened his tendency to meander through sentences as though soundbites don’t matter, Miliband is such a dorky policy wonk that he can memorise one-hour speeches like a borderline autistic man on You Bet!, and Cameron is angrier than Stuart Pearson and The Fucker combined. It wouldn’t be edifying or constructive to watch them try to battle it out on primetime ITV 1 any more than it’s enjoyable watching former boyband members sticking a spiders nest in their eyes or whatever they do on X-Factor these days to keep the viewers away from Strictly.

This is not me saying the political parties have a duty to reverse back to the 1950s and all that “Do you have any more questions you’d like me to ask, Prime Minister?” There are far more natural ways to question our leaders, in a context more natural to the United Kingdom. There’s the annual Paxman Run, for example, at which all former leaders have tended to only just scrape a pass. Michael Gove wouldn’t stand for that level of disappointing failure. There’s the soft sofa shuffle, against which Cameron came unstuck against a former Blue Peter presenter (“How do you sleep at night?”) and Blair managed to implicate himself in yet more Iraq nonsense (“If there wasn’t any WMDs, I’d have just invented another reason, Fern. Now, back to the sponge cake which as you can see here has been resting for a few minutes….”)
I’ve no doubt that the legal minds at the respective HQs of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and UKIP are already forming a joint action against the media companies hoping for a repeat of 2010 in April 2015. If they manage to scupper the debates for good, rejoice. There’s enough reality television in politics without our leaders turning into contestants on Million Pound Drop. I’m devoted far more than normal people should be towards accountability, democratic renewal and electoral reform, but putting our political leaders into contrived Q&A sessions where Downton Abbey should be is an experiment I don’t fancy repeating. Like hair gel, or reading the Observer or using my left hand….
TO WRITE WITH.
                           

Gathering of the damned

In the words of Clint Eastwood;

Hoodi-floodi plinky empty chair, where’s my medication?

Yes, it’s Political Party Conference season, which comes across these days with all the anticipation of SAW week on X-Factor. (And I can’t decide if that’s Stock Aitken Waterman or the series of horror films, being as they are much of a muchness on reality television).

I’ve first hand experience of Party Conferences in my previous life, and in retrospect it’s amazing that I sat through them all without going mad. Or at least drunk. Despite the reputation of Conferences in memoirs and television fiction, the majority of delegates will only ‘network’ by changing trains on the way back home. For the majority of people who turn up at Conferences it’s a long week of listening to earnest speeches on Bus Stop Provision motions and administrative box-ticking with occasional training exercises involving role play and coloured cardboard. It’s a strange mix of middle management get-together and Evangelical church. And as anyone who’s accidentally flicked over to BBC Parliament can testify, it’s also unbelievably boring.

For one thing, there’s no set piece debates any more. Diluted and orchestrated as much as they now are, Conference organisers can’t risk splits (unless they’ve negotiated the result of that split beforehand) or wacky motions from troublemakers. Remember when the youth branch of  the Liberal Democrats used to guarantee a page in most newspapers by putting forward motions on drugs legalisation or sticking the heads of a disposed Royal Family on spikes along the Thames? All pushed out to the Fringes now, lest the media return to “OMG THOSE WACKY LIBDEMS” headlines, not least because there’s a greater need these days for the LibDems to turn up, be solemn and serious, and then go home again before Lembit turns up with a harmonica.

(Actually, I think Lembit is now on the ‘bargepole list’ drawn up by Federal Executives, alongside people like Brian Sedgemore and me.)

We’re not the only party whose Conferences have been blanded to death. Labour have ensured the media can’t get their money shot of a Union member jabbing a pipe into someone’s eye. The Tories have replaced all those women with knitted haircuts and suburban bow-tie dresses with diversity co-ordinators introducing five-minute video clips of eager backbench MPs with forced grins pointing at young children playing football in the street with plinky-plonky background music noodling away in the background. Where once Conferences meant Cabinet Ministers getting haughty, now leaders of lobby groups perform the same smooth advertising schtick as might happen in a boardroom of an AIM listed construction company.

Aside from Conferences being boring, the coverage surrounding them has failed to catch up with everybody else realising that their reputation for being ‘see and be seen’ calendar highlights has long since been a thing of the past. Even “The Thick of It” doesn’t pretend that anything goes on at Conference which might be considered intriguing. We’re left with the BBC asking Andrew Neil to perform set-piece gags in the entrance hall (insofar as anyone needs to force Andrew Neil to do something gimmicky for filler material). At least the LibDems ask members to contribute towards potential manifesto promises (by and large), the other two parties having deemed it necessary to only involve ordinary members for the Leaders Speech in case anything unfortunate happens. (We can’t have ‘TONY BLIAR WAR CRIMINAL’ protests every year, mind, and I can’t think who would be so frustrated at Ed Miliband’s impression of a wet flannel to consider heckling his speech-cum-lecture).

Talking about the Leaders’ Speeches,  it’s unfortunate that BBC News considers it necessary to broadcast Barack Obama’s Conference Speech in real time as it enables ordinary people who consider boot polish more exciting than politics to notice how natural an orator the US President is compared with:

*David Cameron, whose speaking style has now settled down into an incidental character from the Archers being asked to appear on “Live & Kicking” against his will;
*Ed Milliband, whose inability to tell a joke without signposting it for three paragraphs gives the impression that he couldn’t order a takeaway curry without rehearsing the phone call for an hour.
*Nick Clegg, now forced to abandon his ‘humility personified’ schtick in favour of something approaching how a father would speak in court having been discovered pleasuring himself with a frozen chicken by a close relative.

At least we don’t have the ‘Leaders Wives’ showcase in this country, which is prostitution by another name. It’s a blessed relief that our politics has copied only the least disagreeable bits of American political culture, so we don’t have to put up with Samantha Cameron forcing home made Eccles cakes down the throats of sketch writers and/or Andrew Neil. I dread the day OFCOM finally snap and allow political advertising on prime time television which shows Ed Miliband openly weeping as an David Cameron look-a-like wraps barbed wire around hospital beds and pisses into school lunchboxes. All the while, of course, BBC News and ITV News are left covering the personality side of Conferences because they’re still stuck with the idea that real life political news coverage must be covered as though everyone taking part has momentarily finished recording a new series of “Yes Minister”.  I’m certain the  reality of Conferences being the location of the beginning or termination of political careers ended when Alan Clark was in short trousers, but this doesn’t stop SKY News acting as though they’re covering a real time version of “The West Wing”. You can sometimes see Adam Boulton adjusting his trousers just thinking about it.

I’m aware that ordinary members of political parties need to feel involved in ways which go beyond raffle tickets and golf club meet-and-greets. It’s just Conferences have long since stopped being the solution to the involvement problem. They’re tedious and self-congratulatory sessions of advertising at the best of times, covered by a media machine in love with a fantasy idea of political intrigue. Maybe the age of gathering in coastal resorts for a week long love-in died longer ago than anyone dare thing, but in this age of cynicism and political abstention, it seems all the more remarkable than the charades are allowed to continue. How many focus groups convince the suits that the general public think they’re a constructive use of time and money?

There was a time when Conference season triggered my anorak tendencies, not least because I assumed everyone with a membership card had to go at least once, a sort of Hajj pilgrimage for leaflet droppers. Now I watch from so far back I might as well be in a different time zone. Sorry, politics, but  Conferences were always rather awkward and boring places for me to visit when I was involved in campaigns; now I’d rather not bother with you at all.  Good luck keeping Lembit away from a microphone….

OmniFuck

All the important things in life – football, relationships, football – can be planned to within a gnat’s crotchet only to be knocked off course by something completely unexpected. The mother-in-law popping round for a cup of tea, the discovery of suspiciously worded text messages, the hitherto reliable centre-forward hacking the ball with such force in another context it could have been a hole-in-one along a tricky par 5….

As you may be aware, Gordon Brown today plunged himself into a controversy which would have made Malcolm Tucker turn the air twenty shades of puce. Predictably called “Bigotgate”, Brown made one of his “meeting ordinary people” trips into a great clunking fist of a disaster when he labelled a housewife “a bigot” for her views on immigration.

Clearly the media went batshit mental over his comment rather than her views (although, let us be honest here, Labour’s record on both immigration and assisting the unemployed is somewhat lacking…). Brown is entitled to his views, of course, but to call a potential elector such a word, at such a time in the election period, with Labour in third place in some opinion polls shows a total and complete lack of understanding of the greater picture.

It shows Brown has a lack of understanding and empathy, and a complete lack of control over his emotional outbursts.

Ms Duffy thought she had the chance to tell the Prime Minister exactly what she thought on the subjects close to her heart. That those views were somewhat lacking in facts and heavy in opinion would have been handled far better by most other political leaders (Blair would not have been anywhere near this level of knee-deep controversy).

Did he need to apologise ? Once, yes. So many times? And with Hallmark card sincerity?

Tomorrow is the third, and final Leaders Debate. With quite unfortunate timing, Brown has ensured any chance of Labour Party spin leading up to tomorrow will be shadowed by this event. Like Prescot’s Punch all those years ago, this whole affair will eventually become nothing more than a curiosity, a footnote. In the glare of the cameras, it is typical of a Prime Minister whose luck tends to last mere hours.

Tomorrow is the last chance for Brown, Cameron, and Clegg, to sell their Parties before polling day. As I was told many years ago by LibDem campaign experts, the last week of any election campaign is “repetition, repetition, and repetition”. For the next week, Labour will doubtlessly crawl out of this saga, just as the country is struggling to recover from the longest, deepest recession in modern times (thanks again, Gordon…)

Older readers may remember what happened, some decades ago now, when television chef Fanny Craddock was asked to judge ‘ordinary people’ on a precursor to modern programmes like “Masterchef”. Craddock – never one to quite understand the way ‘real people’ lived – laid into housewife Gwen Troake for her menu with such force and condescension that while Troake was speaking, she pretended to retch and vomit. Craddock’s career was finished, her contract terminated early, never to be seen again.

For all his will and strength, Brown appears to have a similar problem with interacting with ‘ordinary people’. His unease and awkwardness, his social anxiety, has shown itself in ways throughout his Prime Ministerial career – from not understanding why low income earners would be upset at the loss of the 10p tax rate, to this recent outburst.

A Craddock-like axing from public life is not likely to happen…but something very similar must be on its way after polling day.

Clegg Factor

God damn, it’s a good time to be a Liberal Democrat.

Above most serious and considered reasons, we’ve got the Daily Mail spitting feathers. I will warn you, it’s Daily Mail at about Level 5 on the “Palin Scale”, so if this is against your current medication, allow me to summarise their complaints about Nick Clegg and our party;

1) The LibDems are going to enforce socialism onto this great nation of ours (like Barack Obama did, FACT).
2) All LibDem MPs are so incompetent and untrustworthy that not a single one of them flipped their homes (the only thing we could drag up was claims for lipstick and a trouser press, how CORRUPT and TWISTED must these LibDems be?)
3) Despite claiming they want to clean up politics, not once has the LibDem party been successful in forcing through reforms past a stubborn and corrupt Labour Party and a solidly establishment Tory opposition (Clegg is dripping with principle, it STINKS)
4) They were actually against the Iraq War long before we all twigged that it was pretty much an illegal turkey shoot (so what else do they know that we haven’t been told yet, HMM?!?)
5) Apart from Liverpool, Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle, and countless other places, oh, and Scotland for a time, they couldn’t run a whelk stall.

So, anyway, the Daily Mail is shit scared. And shit. Also, scared.

There shouldn’t be a surprise to any of this, of course, for the red/blue consensus has been sleepwalking into exactly this kind of disaster for years. If any of them thought the expenses scandal would slap them around the face for a bit, they haven’t learned a thing about the British peoples’ ability to hold a grudge.

The Leaders Debates, which began last week with Dave “I met a black man, once” Cameron failing to shake off his Blairite “Look….” sentence structures and public school smugness, and Gordon “I agree with Nick” Brown, have clearly shaken up the 2010 general election in a manner nobody really expected.

If “Jennifer’s Ear” and “Prescott’s Punch” did anything to their respective elections, the media seemed to have declared Eyjafjallajökull and Lord Adonis’ game of Texas Hold ‘Em with the Civil Aviation Authority as the game changers for this one.

Not so fast, news media. For Nick Clegg had something up his sleeve; personality and policies. Tomorrow night should be even better for him, for the Sky News Debate is right up the LibDem street – on international affairs and terrorism, our party holds almost every trump card. From the like-for-like renewal of Trident, through to ID Cards, DNA Database and the truth on MoD spending, it’s the LibDems winning here, and here, and over there too.

David Cameron will fail to argue the point on his relationship with Europe after leaving the EPP for a group of RATHER dodgy extremists; while Brown will suffer from being forever associated with holding the purse-strings while Tony Blair marched into Camp David for a good session of one-sided instructions.

I am under no illusions; the LibDems cannot sustain over 30% in the opinion polls for the entire election. Now, however, is the best chance we have had since the first reawakening of the Liberal Party under Grimond to shake the tired old Establishment from its very high but rotten tree.

The Daily Mail telling voters to “wake up” to the LibDems proves that we’re doing something right. It’s a very good day to carry the membership card of such unconventional troublemakers.

Election Fever, part 94…

Nick Clegg emailed me today. Well the address was from “LIBDEMLEADER-SUBS2010@emarketing…”, but with the Leaders Debates starting tomorrow, appearance is everything. He’s a very busy man.

Yesterday was the launch of the UKIP manifesto. Never knowingly intentionally hilarious, the basement venue meant the quad of joint leaders – for that is how it looks – squashed together like naughty schoolboys outside the head’s office. I concede very well tanned, wrinkled schoolboys, although it has to be said their current down with the kids leader Lord Pearson of Rannoch closely resembles Monty Burns on ether…

It was “Honest Malcolm” who seemed to get the most laughs yesterday. He bumbled along with pretty heavy handed delivery of every over-rehearsed line – something about not wanting to order the octopus at a Brussels restaurant, or at least not to claim expenses for it – then tangled himself in knots over the policy on tactical voting.

In short, UKIP would prefer voters to choose the Tories, but not too many Tories, because that would cause a Conservative victory, thus causing the end of the nation as we know it. I assume, therefore, that m’Lord would prefer UKIP voters talk to each other by means of telepathy to ensure that, like Goldilocks, the number of votes given to each Conservative candidate is “just right”.

Lord Malcolm of Used Cars then had a manifesto blank. On the proposed burqa ban, a journalist asked about the intention to extend the ban to private buildings. “We haven’t said private buildings,” protested Malcolm. “Yes we do, it’s on page 15,” whispered one of the joint leaders. “I will hand you over to our policy chief,” blustered Lord Octopus.

It was this “policy chief” – Duncan, a normal name to offset his double barreled surname – who turned up on SKY News later in the evening to sink into a quicksand of interview failure.

“You say in the first line of your manifesto that, in year one, you will reduce public spending to 1997 levels…?” barked the interviewer
“Yes” answered Duncan
“Can you tell me what public spending levels were in 1997?”
“No”.

There will be no UKIP hilarity tomorrow during the first ever Leaders Debate, live on ITV1. Despite the constraints strapped onto the debates by the 76-point rule book – which includes, bizarrely, one rule indicating exactly when the three men can shake hands – I remain optimistic that something good will come from this new curiosity to our election campaigns.

Lord knows this has been a pedestrian campaign so far.

“I’d rather watch paint dry,” comments my mate on the prospect of watching tomorrow night. “No, actually, I’d even watch dry paint, just stare at the walls for an hour, to be honest…”

Nick Clegg, having successfully seen off a petulant Jeremy Paxman on Monday night, is in the strongest position. He needs to polish off a few soundbites, otherwise all is well. Gordon Brown has the most to lose, given how disastrous he is during live television, with his almost autistic preference for answering with pre-prepared lists of statistics.

David Cameron needs a good showing after a rather ho-hum reaction to the hard-backed “power to the people” manifesto on Tuesday. If he can avoid starting every sentence with the very Blairite “Look…”, he could be onto something…

It’s not looking good, though, this election. Still seems distant and abstract. It’s missing a vital policy difference – National Insurance contributions just ain’t snappy enough – or an incident around which the campaign can turn. Unlike American elections, from which the Leaders Debates have been adopted, an election over here happens in shorter, sharper bursts. We’ve just been lacking the burst so far…

Is it a measure of the election – or your humble Doktorb – that the excitement could come when the 90 minute interview starts tomorrow night ?