Although we live in a golden age for think tanks I worry about whether alternative policy prospectuses will be the clincher in the General Election campaign.
Surely the choice should be about substance. Rhetoric and personality come into the mix. Naturally we want to have competent rulers and will be concerned about their motives. But isn’t the most important question what they would do? The direction they would take our country? I worry that the debate about policy gets drowned out amidst the jeering and the cheering, and is dismissed as too dull and worthy.
If so, then perhaps that self-styled “public service broadcaster” the BBC is the culprit.
As Michael Gove told Eddie Mair recently:
“Your question was, if I may say so, the type of political game-playing that puts people off BBC interviewers because instead of asking about policy you’re asking about position.
“One of the things people dislike about politics is the way that commentators instead of talking about issues of substance, such as employment or inflation, play a game of snakes and ladders, and who is up and who is down.”
When I was growing up there used to be hour long interviews of politicians on an ITV programme called Weekend World with Peter Jay and then Brian Walden. The interviews were challenging but they were also serious. Andrew Neil is very good but he just doesn’t have as much time as Mr Walden.
Then again perhaps the voters are really to blame. We are all so busy with other things. The attention span of much of the electorate seems to have shortened.
Or have the politicians become more vacuous?
Lord Saatchi, back in 2003, said that for Conservatives to complain about soundbites as a modern idea was misguided:
“If you can’t reduce your argument to a few crisp words or phrases it probably means there’s something wrong with your argument.
“The next time a senior Tory tells you that soundbites are ineffective or immoral, remind the speaker of these: ‘Your country needs you’; ‘One man, one vote’; and ‘No taxation without representation’.”
So often political interviews have become uninspiring as the politician regards the measure of success as being a matter of getting through it without making a gaffe. The only means to achieve this is regarded as reciting passages from a brief they have been provided with. Sometimes reciting even the most apposite passage from their folder will have a only a tenuous connection with answering the question. But no matter. The primary objective has been accomplished of avoiding saying anything interesting.
The allocation of airtime for all this continues. For the viewer or listener there is still a certain bloodsport of hearing the discomfort of the politician refusing to give an answer despite being asked perhaps three or four times. Then on to the next item with public cynicism cranked up yet another notch.
Broadcasters are not motivated by some perverted determination to lower voter turnout. They know their audience is up for a ruck. There is the energy and human drama. There is humour, abuse, fear. Therefore John Bercow’s priggish pronouncements about rowdiness at Prime Minister’s Question Time being a “turn off” for the public is backed up by scant evidence in terms of the Parliament Channel being a “turn on” the rest of the time.
All this gives a premium to those who, as Les Miserables would put it, are “singing the song of angry men.” BBC TV’s Question Time last night had a couple of angry men on the panel – Nigel Farage and Russell Brand – both calling each other “mate” in a menacing tone.
Anger has its place in political motivation – but as a means to an end. We can all go and riot – or vote UKIP or for the Green Party or follow Russell Brand on Twitter. Or we can be spurred, with less adulation, into coming up with solutions.
All well and good. But after rushing off to a think tank seminar to thrash out an evidence- based remedy to whatever it is, which can be adapted from Denmark or Wisconsin or somewhere, the politicians need to gain the attention of voters.
Norman Kirk said:
“New Zealanders don’t ask for much: someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”
Yet as John McTernan wrote the other day that sort of language matters. Having a home – rather than housing, or a “housing unit”. A powerful message from the Conservatives – a clear, emotional message – about the value of home ownership matters as much as statistics and policy.
Aspiration is of the greatest importance to the common ground (rather than the arid “centre ground”) of politics in offering a bold and inspiring message. However, Mr McTernan offers an interesting warning against the word “aspiration” compared to the preference of Mr Kirk, the former New Zealand Prime Minister, for the word “love”:
“What’s the government policy on love? Ask that question and you’ll be laughed at. We’re embarrassed about emotions so we reify them. I’ve got a friend whose sister still lives near their mum and dad. The parents are getting old, and a bit frail. So she pops in to see them. Helps with shopping. Sorts out problems. Ask her what she’s doing and she wouldn’t know what the question meant. Tell her she’s a carer and you have a package of support for her and she’ll exasperatedly say ‘I’m her daughter, what do you expect me to do?’ The same is true of being a mum or a dad.
“Political parties have agonised discussions about their ‘offer’ on ‘aspiration’. What do they mean? Ever heard parents say they are aspirational for their kids? Nope, me either. But they ferry them to football training, get them music lessons, read to them and love and nurture them in so many ways. ‘See’, says the politician, ‘you’re being aspirational’. ‘No’, says the parent, ‘I’m being a good dad/mum. What would you do?’ “
I rather like the word “aspirational” but we certainly need to mind our language. For example, polling from Lord Ashcroft has suggested that ethnic minority voters do not distinguish between attacks on “multiculturalism” and a multi-racial society.
The optimists can win. In the context of the 2015 General Election that means the Conservatives can win. Yet to defeat the pessimists alliance of UKIP/Greens/Labour/LibDems/RussellBrandabstentionists there must be more passion, candour and plain speaking.