Thursday, 14 January 2010

Re-engaging with Politics

If you were watching the Television on Saturday night and managed to drag yourself away from “So You Think You Can Dance” or “Take Me Out” you might have been watching BBC2. If you were you would have seen a program about the election campaign of who is now President but was then Senator Obama. It’s called “By The People” and it may still be on the Iplayer.

The thing that struck me most during this excellent documentary was the vast number of the activists who seemed to be under 30, possibly even under 25. Yes, there were middle aged men in suits on the campaign but those out on the streets and making the phone calls were young, really young. Can you imagine that happening here? It wasn't wall to wall inspiration though. There were a few annoying characters. I don't think, for instance, that you would catch many English people doing a motivational dance based on a scene from “The Fresh Prince of Bell Air”.
How did they do this? OK, so Senator Obama was different to just about every other Presidential candidate ever. He was a young and black but it simply can't be that. He also wasn't President Bush which seemed to be to his advantage but then, neither was John McCain. But there seemed to be something else. There was something that got people excited about him before he started going on about “Hope”, a lot, or quoting Bob the Builder. As I'm on the wrong side of the pond it is hard to say but might it be the he spoke to people as if they were adults. As if they are clever enough to understand the problems and that sometimes there aren't simple solutions and that some things take time.
Whilst the 24hr news channels on both sides of the ideological isle were screeching and squawking about anything and everything and delivering every story as if it was the end of the world, Senator Obama was calm and made his point in a way that tried to avoid hyperbole or as he put it “Never to high or to low”. Ok, his big set piece speeches were filled with the sort of “Eagle soaring over the Great Plains” imagery so beloved by the US political speech writer, (although his main speech writer Jon Favreau is only 29) most of the time he was relatively sensible. He managed to get his sensible tone across despite the media.

And there lies our problem. How can we engage our youth? (That sentence makes me sound so old but, hey, I am). Again I think that, whilst politicians have to shoulder some of the blame for the public disconnect with the body politic, the media, both print and broadcast, have done an amazing job in turning us off for politics. It has got to the point that a politician has to point out that they think that people are grown ups and can cope with nuanced argument rather then being able to go on the radio and assume that the Today program is listened to by adults. The British press has reached a place were the subtlety of argument is almost impossible. They just want to deal in black and white, well some newspapers it is only the white. They want fear and emotion. The want to describe all politicians as on the make or croaked in some way, when, in fact, most members of parliament are there because they want to help people and they believe in what their party stands for. They encourage cynicism about politics and politicians and then act surprised when we have a low turn out on Election Day.
TV news is no better. Despite the fact that it is on for 24hrs a day they still seem to be in a hurry. All news readers have now taken the Paxman approach to interviewing which is less about extracting useful information and having a debate and more about showing that they have a lack of deference and showing how big you balls are, and this includes the woman. This is the reason that our leaders (and those that wish to lead us) go on the soft programs like GMTV or end up chatting on Mumsnet, they are able to get a word in edgeways, although this doesn't save them from being misreported, I give the Gordon Brown biscuit incident as evidence for this. It was reported in our papers that he is such a ditherer that he could even answer a question on which was his favourite biscuit. What a fool. The thing is, this isn't what happened. According to the founder of Mumsnet the question was asked but due to a technical error the Prime Minister didn't see the question hence no answer. However, despite the fact that it is untrue, I saw this being used this week in a newspaper as a fact.
The problems of reductionism are not just the fault of the press; Politicians must share the blame too. Take the problem that we have with drinking. The cost to the NHS and to the police. According to the papers it's binge drinking that's the problem. Extended licensing hours, yes, that's to blame. And it's all young people. As I record this the Tories are blaming the Term units of alcohol and want to bring in Centilitres of alcohol like they have in Europe, I don't think they've run this idea past the whole party, “like they have in Europe, I think not, on principle”. The Government are also looking at labelling but also at a mandatory minimum price per unit for alcohol. So the same people are being punished by both sides here with simple easy to understand and totally useless plans. No one talking about the at home drinkers who drink every night and in large quantities doing serious long term damage to themselves and much more importantly then all of those things, no one is asking why people drink so much. And why aren't they asking? Because it is a hard question to answer. There are no simple solutions and it won't fit easily into a press release.
Our press would have you believe that people care not for politics because, after the expenses scandle, we have found out that our politicians are corrupt. Personally I would say human, taking advantage of a lax system is human but they would say corrupt. But if this is the reason then why do Americans get so excited about their politics? Whether they admit it or not (and I don't think they will) their system is incredibly corrupt and their press is considerably more divisive then ours. Elections there are all about who can raise the most money and voting in the house and the senate is influenced (to a greater or lesser extent) by which lobby group has paid the money to the representative's election war chest.

So, again, we are left with the question, why where so many people excited by Barack Obama? Did they think that he was, like episode 4, a new hope? Coming to sweep away all that has gone before because that seems unlikely, people have noticed how slowly politics changes. Or maybe they just mistook it for a giant reality show in which they could get involved. That would explain the vast number of young people involved. Perhaps they were interested more in his “journey” than in his policies. Is this a bad thing? Maybe not. If they were interested enough to make phone calls and delivery leaflets maybe they might have read them and become a little more informed.

We are forever hearing ways that might encourage people to vote. We could do it at Supermarkets or by text or by post or by pressing the red button (oh no, that was Dr Who extra, but my point stands). Armando Iannucci described this in his book, The Audacity of Hype, as process replacing content. Giving people more ways to vote isn't really the answer to their lack of enthusiasm; you need to give them more reasons to vote.
But maybe way can see a way ahead because we are going to have pre-election debates. Finally all 3 main parties have agreed to have a US style debate and this can only be a good thing. The 3 leaders will have time to discuss their visions for the country on Prime time television, 3 times. I would imagine that Nick Clegg leapt at this opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, as he should. Whilst there will be questions from the moderator they will get time to make their point, without being interrupted by an imbecile, well David Cameron might say something. It will be 3 men standing up and discussing their point of view in the middle of the evening, hopefully with a minimum of fussing and extraneous nonsense, although I can't image that Sky will be able to do it without covering the screen the screen with a news crawler and up to the second live Polls and weather up dates. This is why we all need bigger televisions, it's so we can see the little tiny picture in the middle of the screen a little better. But back to some sort of point, is this the sort of thing that will help people start to re-engage with the political system? A couple of hours of, hopefully, decent debate not viewed through the cynical prism of the British Press, let's hope so. The reason that parties like the BNP did well in the local and European elections is 2 fold. Firstly people are disconnected from the main parties because they are not dealing directly with their hopes and fears (mostly fears that are prayed upon and exaggerated by the opportunistic hate mongers) and secondly their voters are highly motivated and go out and vote. European and local elections use proportional representation which leads to minority parties doing better over all. Whilst the General election will continue to use the first past the post system, which will make it much harder for smaller parties to have anything the impact they did before, if you do not vote then you have no one else to blame but yourself if the wrong person becomes your MP.

In short, I have no answers. We are in this state because we have allowed ourselves to get here. We have bought nasty, cynical newspapers and we have not complained when our Television news is uninformative and treats us like idiots.
Let us hope that we find a way to re-engage the populaces because if we don't only about 40% of those entitled to vote, if we are lucky, will vote in the next general election. This means that if the winning party gets, say 45%, only 18% of the people who could have voted voted for the party of Government. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

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