Why is this election so boring? With a genuine choice between strongly held political ideas, it should be exciting. But the life has been crushed out of it by narrow and sterile speculation in the media. Andy Lewis of West Somerset Labour Party worked as a journalist in seven general election campaigns. This is his analysis:
On Friday a group of Labour members from Somerset took a break from local campaigning and went to a rally in Bristol, to see Ed Miliband. The hall was packed, Ed was on great form and we came away inspired.
I thought the speech contained two strong news angles. Ed promised a Labour government will scrap the hated bedroom tax on day one, by giving money to councils. And he openly accused David Cameron of wanting to cut child benefit for millions of families.
Tedious discussions of ‘hung parliament’
The bedroom tax causes hardship to hundreds of thousands of people. Relief for them would surely be welcome. And Ed’s challenge to Cameron on child benefit is brave and contentious (by contentious, I mean it’s true, but the Tories deny it.) These were good stories.
But when we turned on the news that evening, what did we hear? The day had been dominated – or so we were told – by the tedious discussion of what will happen if there’s a hung parliament. We saw a snatch of Ed giving an interview on a train, patiently explaining his position on what will happen if the SNP hold the balance of power.
And so off went the story, on another round of claim and counter claim about something that might not even happen. Election coverage has become an endless game of five-way ping pong. A party leader is asked about possible coalitions, his or her answer is then put to all the others, little differences emerge and the whole game can start again.
So is this what voters care about? On Saturday, back from Bristol, Labour members were out on the streets of Minehead. The people we met were mostly friendly and wanted to discuss topics ranging from the state of the economy to the number 28 bus.
Not a single person mentioned the SNP. Not a single person mentioned coalition government. And I’m sure any attempt to engage them in discussion about confidence and supply arrangements in the House of Commons would have been met with a glazed look.
It saddens me to say that the media seem to be doing their best to reduce what Ed called a generation-defining election to a tedious squabble about political process. So why has this happened?
For one thing, having a single narrative makes life easy for the journalists. Elections are chaotic, wide-ranging events. There’s a natural tendency to try to reduce the chaos by picking out the “real” story, running with that and more or less ignoring the rest. The fact that we now have 24 hour news makes all this worse.
But, again sadly, I have to say that Labour is partly to blame. After long years of hostility from the media, we decided we had had enough of being stitched up. First Peter Mandelson and then Alastair Campbell established an iron grip on what the party said and tried – often successfully – to manipulate news coverage.
I experienced this at first hand during the 1997 election, which was dominated by Labour’s ruthless and brutal spin machine. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. The trouble is there has been a backlash, and we who lived by the sword are now dying by the sword.
Interviews are boring because any politician who steps slightly out of line will be destroyed by the news cycle. And coverage is dominated not by what has happened – like Ed’s speech in Bristol – but by what might be about to happen. It has become a cliché of election coverage that a minister or shadow minister “will say” something or other “later today.”
Everyone is trying to second guess everyone else and any spark of originality is crushed. But it could all be different. A view of home news from abroad is often interesting, so let’s turn to Dissent, a New York political magazine with a leftist point of view.
It says: “British politics is more polarised than at any time for twenty years. Not since 1992 has Labour gone into a general election on a ticket as social democratic as this one…… Meanwhile the Conservatives plan cuts to benefits and have pledged to curb already weak trade union power…… Should Labour win, one can expect the squealing of the British establishment to audibly increase.”
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Instead of this sort of reporting, here at home we have seen the election portrayed as a series of squabbles over a narrow strip of centre ground and endless speculation about who might do what deal with whom if (and this is still an if) there is a hung parliament.
Here in Somerset, we have seen an example of blatant bias. The Bridgwater Mercury used the occasion of a visit by the former MP, Tom King, as the excuse to turn a so-called news page into a page of free advertising for the Tories – featuring their election candidates, six photos and 23 blue rosettes. Later, on the Mercury’s website, news stories were accompanied by adverts promoting the Tories and UKIP.
But the media don’t own the election. We, the voters, do. So turn off the radio and television. Go straight to the sports pages in the papers. Make up your own mind what matters – and vote Labour!