Last night saw an unprecedented panel discussion and question-and-answer session on television, between no less than seven political party leaders. That’s democracy, right?
Firstly, let’s consider the history of televised political debates, with an example included in the documentary: the infamous United States presidential head-to-head between youthful, dynamic Democrat John F Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, whose incessant sweating under the hot studio lights severely stalled his journey into the White House, which he’d later leave in disgrace after having his opponents wire-tapped (something now commonplace amongst American presidents, except nowadays they wire-tap entire peoples).
Nonetheless, the Americans pride themselves on supposedly adhering to the concepts of freedom and democracy, despite presidential elections being very much a two-horse race; a personality-driven contest between two hot shots. And that’s what we had embraced over here in Britain: televised debates, in a country where our parliament’s head is unelected, with only one of its two Houses of Parliament enjoying elections – and even that’s a “first-past-the-post” system that’s left us with only two parties getting into power for years, since in many cases, chunks of areas gained count more than numbers of votes won.
In 2010, though, after decades of Labour/Conservative conversions of Westminster power, the Liberal Democrats – buoyed by years of opposing tuition fees and illegal invasions overseas – became a legitimate party to influence the balance of power at an election in the midst of a global economic crisis both major parties had neglected to protect us from by failing to regulate the toxic financial sector.
The televised debates between Labour’s beleaguered, Nixonesque Gordon Brown, the arrogant and posh Tory David Cameron, and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, saw the arrival of “Cleggmania,” where Brown uttered the famous words “I agree with Nick,” while Cameron came across so out of touch with working people that he helped blow his party’s chance of a majority win.
Nick Clegg, often with one hand in his pocket, spoke with such ease and charisma, it influenced people to vote Liberal Democrat. The Lib Dem policies and promises didn’t hurt much, either, as they were still coming across as a viable alternative, particularly appealing to young people. But of course, all that changed.
With no party able to win an outright majority, Clegg – faced with “don’t sell out” chants from his throng of youthful supporters – went into talks with Cameron, and set up a coalition government. In return, the Lib Dems were told, they’d have their chance at a referendum on electoral reform, key “Orange Book” (right-wing) party members would be permitted positions of power, and Nick Clegg would get to call himself Deputy Prime Minister.
It all went ahead, and the referendum offered us a choice of keeping “first-past-the-post” or something called “AV,” rather than proportional representation where winning 75% of the votes would give you, gasp, 75% of the seats in power. Few of us seemed to really know what the heck this “AV” thing was, so either didn’t turn up to vote on the issue, spoiled the ballot, or voted for something without fully understanding the options. The Tories loved this, because the Lib Dems had taken the bait, accepting the “AV” option, which gave us a resounding result where we kept the status quo, killing any chance of electoral reform for decades to come (conveniently meaning Tories will keep snatching power with things like a measly 36% of the votes).
Clegg then proceeded to essentially aid and abet Cameron in dismantling the state and selling it off, bumping tuition fees, and prompt numerous demonstrations outside Lib Dem events from young people who had been so impressed by Clegg’s showing at the TV debates that they’d snapped up thousands of pin badges saying “I agree with Nick.” They voted Lib Dem, and got the Tories – because they bought into one man’s performance on television, such is the danger of “X-Factor” style shows in politics. The damage this did cannot be overemphasised, as British youth feeling abandoned and betrayed – influenced by an often-brilliant Russell Brand suggesting voting doesn’t affect anything (particularly his own success) – they became more apathetic towards party politics – and meanwhile, somewhere, Cameron was smiling, knowing he can count on the “silver vote.”
Then along came Ed Miliband, who became Labour leader instead of his own, more right-wing brother David (the true “heir to Blair”) thanks to votes from his fellow MPs, party members, and members of the labour unions who help fund the party. Quickly christened “Red Ed” in the right-wing corporate mainstream media, he immediately set about softening his left-wing persona – even courting favour with the nationalistic English types by campaigning for Scotland to remain part of Britain – despite still having the chutzpah to attack Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, bankers, greedy landlords, energy companies, and wanting to open up the railways to state ownership. With Cameron and Clegg in cahoots, he was the only real lone opposition and alternative to right-wing austerity. When he attended an anti-austerity rally, the radical left heckled him, while the right-wing media showed him on screen alongside those radical lefties as they supposedly smashed windows and vandalised property. The Labour leadership is certainly the most unenviable political position to occupy in modern Britain, where, influenced by the media, the two biggest concerns of the population seem to be state spending and immigration (in fact, two complete and utter non-issues, as our book explains).
So, why not a three-way debate this time? Well, this is almost as complex and hilarious as the reasons for the First World War, also looked at in the film.
Cameron’s performance last time was disastrous – mostly because he can’t help but come across as a cold-hearted blue-blood, which he actually is, so at least it’s an honest portrayal. But juxtapose him against someone like Ed, who comes across awkward, fallible, and more real, and it’s an even greater disaster waiting to happen. It’s also bad news for Clegg as well as Cameron, since both are left having to defend government decisions the last five years, and their only hope of defence (or offence) is to associate Ed, and Labour, with the economic crisis that was in fact caused by the financial sector that all of the political parties had too long let run amok (it had nothing whatsoever to do with state spending).
So of course Cameron wanted more and more political figures on stage with him for the debate – despite being the Prime Minister, it diluted any opposition to him, while watering down his inherent obnoxiousness to the viewing audience; good news for the Tories.
The left-wing Green Party have, for years, enjoyed increasing success, and had an MP elected to the House of Commons. When their party conference came to Sheffield, where I live, it seemed exciting, yet whenever I picked up a newspaper or switched on the news, there was no mention of it; you wouldn’t know it was even happening. Yet when the right-wing, one-trick pony UKIP trotted along onto the scene to exploit cynical fears over foreigners, nicking two MPs from the Conservatives, the media rushed to give them free promotion to make sure the MPs remained – even though the Greens have enjoyed a larger membership. Even OFCOM decreed that UKIP, not the Greens, were “a major party,” meaning Cameron could rely on UKIP’s Nigel Farage to pull off the mother miracle of making the Conservative leader actually look less right-wing.
This, though, meant that the Greens had a case, and leader Natalie Bennett was ready to challenge in court any attempt by the networks to put on a television debate without them included. Cue Scotland’s SNP and the Welsh Plaid Cymru, wanting their inclusion in a UK national debate. And thus, there you go: seven party leaders, all up on the stage for the show!
To understand the debate further, beyond the backstory, you have to understand the context of each individual agenda.
Obviously, for David Cameron, the aim was to try and spin his track record in power as positive, despite all the evidence to the contrary, seeing as he has presided over a Victorian agenda with the most right-wing government since the Second World War. He could rely on Farage to make him look less right-wing, though, as mentioned, and needed to associate Miliband with New Labour, even if it meant repeating the favourite Tory lie that Labour “maxed-out the country’s credit card,” when in fact the nation bailed out the banks to the tune of £1.5 trillion, which – instead of asking them to pay it all back – Cameron has used as an excuse to realise his Tory dream of cutting the state into little bitty pieces and selling off what’s left to his rich corporate chums, as shown in the documentary.
Nick Clegg, a prototype of a professional politician without any added installations of things like integrity, belief, honesty, or credibility – which are useful traits if you want to get elected – had to suddenly become his own man again at the eleventh hour, putting as much blame as possible for this country’s five-year calamity squarely on the shoulders of Cameron, while attacking Miliband in the hopes of still nicking left-leaning liberal votes off Labour.
Ed Miliband went in with the most difficult role, as mentioned. The media mobilised quickly to marginalise him as soon as he became Labour leader, beyond the “Red Ed” tag, mocking the way he looks, the way he speaks, the way he eats; anything they could think of to stop a major party promoting progressive politics. Coming across as the bloke you’d have a coffee with in your local cafe but would have to get home to his family rather than stay out longer for a lager, Ed’s recent answer to the question of whether he’s tough enough to be Prime Minister was “hell yes,” but despite everything about him, and the fact people complain about the same posh private-schooled men in suits, the public have been carefully conditioned to believing he’s not “statesmanlike” enough, because our inherent masochism means we’re distrustful or uneasy towards politicians who aren’t suited, booted, or one of the Eton lads. Ed came in as Labour’s left-wing choice, but given the media, has carefully claimed Labour, like him, can be “tough” – on immigration, on welfare, on spending in general. Ed’s aim here was to befriend everybody but Clegg and Cameron – because he didn’t want to come across too left-wing, or too right-wing, either. Which of course is pretty impossible.
Nigel Farage’s aim was to blame every single problem on foreigners, and – despite his own pinstripe suit and posh private schooling – be sure to repeat that “they’re all the same; I’m different” since he’ll never be Prime Minister like Ed might be, so can effectively play the zany uncle who comes to your tea party but embarrasses everyone with his outdated, offensive remarks, yet everyone still says “bless him” until he pulls out a gun and takes things to their logical conclusion. Bug-eyed, twitching, and flapping, Farage needed to simply stick to the same tactics: foreigners are the biggest problem, as is the EU, and the ConDem coalition, like Labour, have failed to reduce the country’s debt, and so would the others. And “they’re all the same; I’m different!” Just repeat that, over and over again, so people laugh at you, and think you’re harmless enough. Even though you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic bigot. Make ‘em laugh. That’s important. “They’re all the same; I’m different!” Har har!
Natalie Bennett’s plan was much like the Green plan as a whole: aim to become the third party, not by overtaking the Lib Dems, but by attacking Labour for not being left-wing enough; that way, you steal their lefty votes, and even if Labour lose seats, it doesn’t matter, because you have your principles, and that’s what you campaign on: principles. The beauty of Bennett, and the Greens, is that almost all of their policies are so deeply rooted in empirical research and factual evidence – from energy, and education and health care, to immigration. The media don’t care too much for it, of course, so they either ridicule it or ignore it, and go and cover UKIP instead. Expectations for Bennett were so low going into this given the “car crash” interviews of late, that she couldn’t mess up too much. She’s simply not a professional politician or a performer; she believes in everything she says, but none of that means she can come across well for the media.
Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru both had very similar left-wing missions: show their own people that they’ll stand up for them in the face of right-wing Westminster rule, while coming across as relevant to English audiences by mentioning what they’d do for, or with, the main parties. Similar to Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood wanted to make themselves look more left-wing than the unionistic Labour Party (which of course they are).
Ultimately, though, with such right-wing mainstream media dominance, and no sight of electoral reform on the horizon – since it was strangled by the ConDems – the seven-party piece was laughable. We like to pretend we’re better than the Americans, but we’re reduced to the same delusions of democracy they are.
While it was refreshing to hear alternative viewpoints – especially from the women – and for many voters to finally put faces to names, the exercise serves little purpose. There is no way any of these parties – apart from Labour and the Tories – to seize major power in Westminster. They can, however, have an influence, and through the views aired here, influence the electorate in the two hour time-frame the media allowed them to get them out there, unfiltered by the tabloid crap machine.
In the end, most of them achieved their aims, except for Ed, whose aims were, as mentioned, impossible. Ed has been told time and again that he’s not statesmanlike enough, so he kept talking to camera and being the quintessential politician, which isn’t an approach that plays to his strengths. He did manage to mention that Cameron agreed with Labour spending plans right up until the crisis, which was daring, but he made sure to befriend Wood and Sturgeon while refraining from attacking Farage. Instead, he went after the coalition, and ignored Bennett.
Bennett did well, as no gaffe was made, and Greens will surely be satisfied enough with that, since their principles were put across nicely, and now they just await the ignorance or ridicule of the right-wing media; whatever editors decide works best. Wood was at her best when being the decent, lovable human being she surely is, and garnered the first ovation by calling out Farage’s ugly remarks on immigrants with AIDS, while Sturgeon, unlike Wood, or Bennett, was the quintessential politician, absolutely on fire, making mincemeat of all the men. Farage’s mask slipped, and for the first time a widespread British public saw a glimpse of the nasty bigotry that fuels him.
Cameron and Bennett will both be relieved they escaped unscathed. Clegg turned on the charm like the old pro wrestler coming out of retirement for another appearance at WrestleMania, or Cleggmania, but whose time – and credibility – has long since passed. And despite what the papers say today, Sturgeon and Wood came across very strong, while Farage was a wacky trainwreck of a man. Perhaps most interesting is that, despite his awkward attempt at statesmanship, three of four major polls ranked Miliband as a winner (ICM, ComRes and Survation) – so The Sun, under the header “#massdebate” (teehee) ran with this front page, no doubt already prepared days in advance anyway:
The bottom line is that if we judge these politicians as “winners” or “losers” based on highly-produced performances on a programme resembling X-Factor, we ourselves will lose. Remember Cleggmania? Nixon? Kennedy? Even Hitler? It’s not about charismatic performers and whether they “won” or “lost” or impressed us on the night. It’s about what’s best for the people. It’s about how – in this system rigged to let the Tories win – we actually use the system against them in order to stop them from doing just that.