Independent on Sunday, 5 April 2015
Demands for politicians to show their true selves are likely to have the opposite effect
If you believe The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, Ed Miliband has already lost the general election. Not so, according to The Guardian and the Daily Mirror, both of whom put the Labour leader narrowly ahead after last week’s televised leaders’ debate. Clearly, both these things cannot be true, which says something about the fiercely partisan nature of the British press in an election period.
Hang on, though, isn’t this election supposed to be different? Isn’t it the moment when the two-party system finally breaks down? The growing popularity of small parties and the anti-politics movement championed (if that’s the word) by the comedian Russell Brand are said to have created a new political atmosphere.
This time, politicians from all parties will have to work harder to win votes – that much at least is true – and they also need to be more honest with the electorate; the public is sick of being lied to, and authenticity is what voters want more than anything. The television debates are supposedly essential to separating out the genuinely well-intentioned from people who are just in it for themselves.
The word that comes to my mind when I hear all this nonsense is too rude to print in a family newspaper. None of the three main parties is doing well in the polls and they’re terrified of making promises they may not be able to keep if, as expected, the result of the election is another coalition or a minority government. Everyone wants to avoid the position Nick Clegg got into after the 2010 election, when he found himself unable to keep a rash promise not to increase tuition fees.
In such circumstances, no one should be surprised if candidates are sometimes reluctant to make cast-iron promises. If sufficient voters want an end to two-party politics – and we shouldn’t forget that many of us don’t – a kind of prevarication will inevitably be one of the consequences. It’s why this year’s election manifestos will be rather different, striking a balance between what parties would do with an outright majority and what they can realistically achieve if they are merely the largest party.
The problem is that any appearance of reticence feeds public distrust of politicians, which is widespread and corrosive. MPs have become targets of vitriolic personal abuse, partly as a consequence of the Iraq war, which has done incalculable damage, and the MPs’ expenses scandal. But it is linked to a wider phenomenon in which instant, noisy and uninformed opinion has polluted political discourse. This has been encouraged by narcissists such as Brand, who are untroubled by their own glaring contradictions.
On Thursday evening, a woman who heckled David Cameron during the leaders’ debate became an instant celebrity, telling journalists afterwards that she wouldn’t vote for any of them. “I gave them nearly a full hour and I found that they were still lying about the issues,” she announced grandly. In fact, as several commentators noted, some of the claims made during the debate depended on different interpretations of statistics, and that’s very different from deliberate falsehood.
I don’t know whether anyone seriously believes that branding everyone as liars – including, presumably, the hapless Natalie Bennett – is a reliable method of achieving better politics. It may well be easier to shrug off the abuse if you have never been in power, like the Greens. “Didn’t the women do well?” was one response to Thursday’s leaders’ debate, but they didn’t face anything like the pressure Cameron, Miliband and Clegg were under.
In this poisonous climate, Miliband faces a double whammy. He knows he won’t get a fair hearing from right-wing editors who have never forgiven him for standing up to the press over phone hacking. The effect on his public persona is painful to watch.
I happened to be out of the country last weekend, and was mystified when I received emails from the Labour Party offering me the chance to buy a “Hell, yes!” T-shirt. My heart sank when I did a quick search of news channels and discovered that this was Miliband’s response to a fatuous question from Jeremy Paxman about whether he was tough enough to be PM. Miliband could have said prime ministers are not cowboys and need to be lots of things, including sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable. But he behaved like the hammiest of actors. He did it again during Thursday’s debate, with those long, soulful stares into the camera.
I’m sure it isn’t just Miliband feeling the strain, but I’m already seeing a paradox in this campaign. Shrill demands for politicians to show their true selves were always likely to have precisely the opposite effect, forcing decent people into putting on a performance. Thus far, the most striking thing about the 2015 election is its capacity to manufacture inauthenticity on an unprecedented scale.