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….

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….