The British Election Debates, the Lib Dem Surge and the Americanisation of Our Politics
Open Democracy, April 21st 2010
The British election campaign is shaking up many of the in-built assumptions and contours of British politics.
Despite three decades of upheaval under Thatcherism and Blairism, the advocates of these approaches implemented their ideas, while keeping many of the traditional structures and assumptions of the British political system intact. These are now been exposed, questioned and put under scrutiny in a way they seldom have before.
After all of this it is apt that we have witnessed so far the most disastrous Labour election campaign since 1983 – described accurately by Andrew Neil ‘as a TV on in the corner of a room that no one is watching’ (1), while the Conservative campaign must be the most inept in post-war history by a party coming into an election in the lead in the polls.
What for instance are the Labour and Conservative campaigns about? Beyond the obvious self-preservation of the political order which has so aided their stitch up of political power. Labour have the narrative of ‘securing the recovery’, but seem to be tone deaf to everything else and even sanguine about finding themselves in third place in the polls.
The Conservative campaign surprisingly has no core theme and this for a party which has spent five years reinventing, modernising and detoxicating itself. Post-crash the Tories have veered across the political spectrum, until finally in the election deciding to land on ‘the big society’ without any real warning or detail. All of this with an £18 million election kitty.
The only election campaign which has shown itself more out of touch than Labour or Conservatives has been UKIP and the amateurish, rambling, potterish interviews of Lord Pearson of Rannoch, UKIP leader, who seems to be oblivious to most of the content of his party’s manifesto (2).
The Lib Dem surge seems to have caught a large part of the political cognoscenti by surprise and unaware of the state of our politics, democracy and society, and the anger in the country at bankers, politicians and fat cats. Daniel Finkelstein, a week before the election was called was declaring ‘a Tory landslide there for the taking’; post-debate Kelvin Mackenzie was still predicting a ‘Tory landslide’.
The Lib Dem rise is the product of many factors, some long-term, such as the class dealignment of British politics and the decline of party identification, some more immediate, such as the anger at bankers and politicians. In short, a vote for the Lib Dems is a yearning for a different kind of politics, way of doing our politics, and fundamentally, for a different kind of country.
Labour and Conservatives seem oblivious to the country they have created over the last thirty years. A new book by academic Danny Dorling shows that the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world – only Singapore, the US and Portugal being more unequal. The wealth of the top ten percent is worth on average 13.8 times that of the bottom ten percent across the UK.
London is the most unequal city in the Western world with levels of inequality which even put the rest of the UK to shame. The top ten percent living in London have wealth worth on average £933,563, while the poorest ten percent have on average £3,420 – some 273 times less. The culture and values of inequality permeate and distort every part of our society; the UK for example has a mere 7% of children privately educated, but this accounts for ¼ of school education spending, a figure only exceeded in Chile (3).
Then there is the issue of liberty. What kind of country has 5.4 million people on its DNA database? This is over one in ten of the adult population – and the demographics of this group reveal that they are a snapshot of a more marginal, disconnected Britain: more poor, young and black, less educated and politically engaged.
The Americanisation of British Politics: Living in a Fantasy, Liberal World
The kind of country the UK is geo-politically; whether it is a ‘normal’ European country or an offshore extension of the United States, is another central issue the two big parties don’t want to go near. Labour and the Tories both clearly want us to be the latter, and prevent us discussing the potential of the former.
The Americanisation of British politics can be illustrated in how our political and media elites see much of the public life of our nation, a good example of which is the Prime Ministerial debates. Our political and media classes inhabit a mythical, imagined Camelot – a fantasy land of ‘Anglo-America’ – where all their references to politics are either British or American ‘real’ politics, or the make belief of the TV series ‘The West Wing’. It is as partial a view of the US as it a distortion of the UK: a world of brave, crusading liberals taking on the forces of darkness and prejudice, ‘the New Deal’, ‘New Frontier’, ‘Great Society’ and so on, and never the Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan versions, and certainly not the mad hatter Tea Partyiers.
Therefore, our political and media discourse about the UK debates nearly exclusively engages in a comparison with the US Presidential debates. Thus we are endlessly told the stories of Kennedy’s clean cut look on TV, Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, Gerald Ford saying that Poland was not under Soviet dominance, Reagan’s ‘there you again’ refrain to Carter, Lloyd Bentsen’s ‘Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine’ rebuke to Dan Quayle, and Clinton’s folksy charm on the recession against the first George Bush.
Even the usually excellent Michael Cockerell in his ‘How to Win The TV Debate’ only looked at the US elections, cited all these now familiar landmarks, and made no reference to any other country (4). There is a kind of collective cognitive dissonance going on here: of telling a set of stories so often that they become part of us and how we understand ourselves. Maybe Kennedy beating Nixon in 1960 really is part of British politics, because our political and media elites seem to think so.
There is something beyond lazy journalism here; instead there is an undercurrent of how the world and the UK are seen by our elites. The following other countries could be drawn as examples:
French Presidential Debates:
The French have been having Presidential debates since 1974 when Giscard d’Estaing put Mitterand down with the comment that ‘you don’t have the monopoly of the heart’. In the 1988 election debate Mitterand standing for re-election as President after winning in 1981 faced Jacques Chirac, who created a controversy by refusing to call Mitterand, ‘President Mitterand’. In the 2002 election, Chirac was himself standing for a second term as President, and refused to debate with National Front leader John-Marie Le Pen.
Australian leadership debates:
The Australians have been having election leadership debates since 1984. When a charismatic three times election victor Labor leader (Bob Hawke) finally gave way to his less popular, technocratic Treasury Minister (Paul Keating), Labor thought it was going to lose the election. This was 1993; it had been ten years in office; there had been a painful recession and a weak and slow recovery. The election debates between Keating and Liberal leader John Hewson aided Labor to an unexpected fourth term.
New Zealand leadership debates:
Both Australian and New Zealand debates have been characterized by the embracing of new technologies such as ‘the worm’ which charts voter reaction during debates. This has been referred to as ‘the wormology’ of Australian and New Zealand debates, with leaders making a play for emotions and positive feelings which they know will get good responses. In the 2002 New Zealand debates, a minority party candidate did so well in the debate – Peter Dunne’s United Future New Zealand (charted by the worm) – that their popularity soared and they became part of the governing coalition. In the 2008 debate primarily between Helen Clark and John Key voters could ask questions by posting 30 second questions on YouTube.
Canadian leadership debates:
Canadian debates began in 1968 and coincided with the election of Pierre Trudeau and the first of his three consecutive Liberal victories. The 1968 debate took place three days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy with all the candidates trying to pay the most fulsome tribute. Trudeau’s charisma and relative youthfulness led to the phenomenon of ‘Trudeaumania’.
German Chancellor debates:
These have been running for several elections now; in 2005 after Schroder prematurely called a national election, and trailing massively in the polls to the CDU/CSU, he turned around his party’s fortunes in the debate, being seen as winning the argument against Angela Merkel, the CDU/CSU leader. This produced a very close election result and a ‘Grand Coalition’ between the two big parties.
As you can see our obsession with the US debates is not even an issue with the English language, as Australia, New Zealand and Canada all have leader debates. This points to this being about the fact that our political and media elites see British and American politics as umbilically linked and interwoven.
The stories of some of these other countries are similar to ours and more relevant than the US given American exceptionalism. The journey of parties of the centre-left: the French Socialists, German SPD, Australian Labor and New Zealand Labour, have many lessons for British Labour. All of these have undergone crises of what they stand for, what they do in office, and who they represent in recent years, which they have not adequately answered. Australia’s and New Zealand’s debates about privatisation, deregulation and the marketisation of society, and concerns over the pitfalls which result from these, in terms of concerns over health and well-being (and thus the exclusion of the economy from progressive debate), would seem very familiar to British audiences.
These deep issues about the future direction and nature of the United Kingdom are one our mainstream political classes do not want to bring into the public domain in a general election or any other time. Most of our mainstream debate seems to want to exclude talking about the limitations of the society and kind of country Thatcherism and Blairism has bequeathed us: one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, a place where eight million adults (21%) of the population are economically inactive, and where huge parts of the UK – in places like Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester – have whole communities and several generations permanently excluded from society. And our language of talking about the problems of an ‘underclass’ – now used across the political landscape – shows that our politicians have given up thinking about how we abolish relative poverty.
I am not completely confident that the Lib Dems radical urges and intent will not be dampened down and compromised by the pressures of a British establishment which will do all it can to keep its power. Yet the emergence of them in the general election does provide a popular, powerful vehicle for voters to express their disquiet and anger at the state of things, and a rare opportunity, should we take it to blow apart this rotten system and consensus, and challenge the kind of country Thatcherites and New Labour have made these last three decades.
1. The Daily Politics, BBC Two, April 22nd 2010.
2. See this fairly representative example of Lord Pearson’s interview style, http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/5931508/the-worst-ever.thtml
3. Danny Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, Polity Press 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8615126.stm
4. Michael Cockerell, ‘How to Win The TV Debate’, BBC Two, April 12th 2010, http://www.wikio.co.uk/news/Michael+Cockerell