10 May, 2010Issue 12.2Politics & Society

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The Election That Wasn’t There

Alexander Barker

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Labour as party of the working class has died two deaths in the last 30 years. In 1983, Michael Foot signed a strongly principled manifesto dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” which resulted in a landslide Conservative majority and over a decade in opposition; in 1997, Tony Blair led the party priest-like to power only to reveal that he was nothing but a Tartuffe. Last week’s election was a third death, this time neither tragedy nor farce but a Beckettian non-event.

Jean Baudrillard claimed in 1991 that “the Gulf War did not take place”. It had taken the form of a war, but lacked the substance of a war; smart weapons meant the US-led coalition suffered very few casualities, and a defeated Saddam remained undeposed. It was a non-war. In May 2010, it is clear that the British general election has not taken place. The winner of the televised debates lost ground in the election, and though Gordon Brown’s Labour has been defeated, it lingers on in office. The people have spoken, as Ed Miliband said on Friday morning; but we do not know what they said. We observed a campaign which, though taking the form of an election, turns out to have lacked the substance of an election: it was a non-election.

We woke from the media hallucination when the exit poll revealed the waywardness of the campaign narrative. At this point, what had previously seemed to be one election, a tale of a Liberal Democrat surge and of New Labour’s final spin, revealed itself to be two distinct events running side by side: an unconstrained election-themed game show, and the inescapable logic of the first-past-the-post system.

The two defining stories of the election, so-called Bigotgate and so-called Cleggmania, were proclaimed as the emergence of the real into phoney politics. The media was finally living up to its dual vocation; disclosing the truth and changing opinions. Yet it was precisely in asserting their own authenticity that these stories were actually the exact opposite, the fiction of an election.

The travesty of naming Bigotgate after Watergate, the gold standard of investigative journalism, demonstrates the role it played in the media fantasy. In publicising Brown’s feelings about his maladroit meeting with Labour heartland grandmother Gillian Duffy, Sky News saw itself as revealing the truth behind the political mask. Like a spindoctor in the spotlight, the story went, Brown’s cynical attempt to appear personable had backfired and revealed itself to the nation. Yet the microphone had originally been pinned to Brown’s lapel not for the purpose of uncovering his inner thoughts but in order to broadcast his stage performance to the nation. The sight of Sky reporters pressuring Mrs Duffy for a few soundbites of indignation in order to spin her into Motorway Man’s fiery godmother reminds us that not just her but every voter politicians meet on screen is a mere stand-in for “the ordinary voter”. The revelation did not bring us any closer to truth, for in both the event as originally intended (a fluff piece) and as subsequently spun (an outrage), the journalists involved were consciously constructing a fiction for the public.

Given that Cleggmania was reported as the direct effect of the televised debates, its naming after possibly the greatest ever case of popular acclaim, Beatlemania, served to confirm the media’s pivotal importance to democratic process. The report of Nick Clegg’s nimble rise to the point of prime ministerial possibility seemed to vindicate the incessantly repeated assertion that the televised leaders’ debates were an historic occasion in themselves, an heroic media achievement. The people’s apparent enthusiastic embrace of a hitherto neglected candidate as a direct result of media innovation was welcomed as evidence that the national media is indispensable to proper political discussion. Its intervention had cleared the fog of unawareness to allow the electorate to make up its own mind. The polls of reactions to leaders’ performance on these debates were read as predictions of electoral outcome and Clegg’s strong performance in a debate was translated into expectations at the ballot box. Alex Salmond’s lament was quoted with approval: “These debates haven’t just dominated the election campaign, they are the election campaign.”

Yet the disparity between expectations and outcome is explicable: it is the disparity between the media fantasy and the reality of the first-past-the-post electoral system. The media had been taken in by its own game; it had presumptuously taken its own sensationalised sideshow for the democratic process itself. The British public may enter into the media fantasy when asked whom it would like to see elected, but when faced with safe seats where only one party can win, or marginal seats where at least one party’s supporters must vote tactically, such dreams are replaced with the logic of keeping out one’s least favoured candidate. When the media anointed Clegg “kingmaker” it was anointing itself, and when it registered surprise at Cleggmania’s puncture it was surprised that despite its influence it could not negate the constraints of the electoral system.

The televised debates were historic, but historic more in the history of game shows than in the history of elections. Those who dubbed this the “X-factor election” and compared the debate set-up to Fifteen-To-One got things exactly the wrong way round. This was not an election run according to game show rules, but a general election-themed game show aired to coincide with a real general election. For beside the staged walkabouts and the dramatised electoral sea change, beyond the media election where anything seemed possible, another election quietly was taking place—an election straight jacketed by the strategic realities of the first-past-the-post system.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.