Friday 16 April 2010

The leaders’ debate and the imaginary public

On the first televised UK party leaders' election debate

There were 200 people in the Manchester studio audience for last night’s election debate between the party leaders, and no doubt many more watching at home – though, while viewing figures are not yet available as I write, the surge in electricity demand at the end was apparently lower than predicted by the National Grid, which is surely a metaphor for something as well as a rough indication of interest. But however many people switched on, or off, the more important question is whether anyone was watching as a voter. The consensus seems to be that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg ‘won’ the debate, but is anyone going to vote Lib Dem as a result? Or are we all just commentators now?

Perhaps it is inevitable when we mostly relate to the election through the media, rather than by engaging directly with party activists or other voters, that everything is one step removed. But in fact, party activists tend to talk the same way – speculating about how a particular policy, soundbite or hand gesture will play with an imagined audience ‘out there’, rather than arguing directly for their own politics. This is the same mentality at work when politicians suggest that a rival ‘will look bad’ after an innocent mistake or misunderstanding – even if they’ve done nothing wrong, ‘this will play badly with the public’. But who is the public?

Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron made a great show last night of remembering the names of the questioners, and using them repeatedly. For a moment I was reminded of why we call first names ‘Christian’ names – that sense of radical equality in the eyes of God, the suggestion that we’re all brothers and sisters – but this was a parody of that, and the questioners in the the studio audience were no more than props. The use of first names was a message, and we were being invited to note it down: ‘Ah, Cameron and Clegg using people’s names – clever that, and Brown’s too old and grumpy to pull that off. Will that play badly, or will he get credit for being substantial? Hmmmm. Tweet, tweet.’

The hyper-mediated nature of the election debate debate is most clearly revealed in the involvement of American pollster Frank Luntz, who runs focus groups with those funny dialometers to measure the popularity of each buzzword and accidental hiccup. Luntz, who comes across rather like Dr Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets, was on the Today programme this morning - yes, obligatory morning listening for the middle class commentariat, but his instant response charts are also featured in the Sun today, indicating that tabloid readers relate to the election in a similarly detached way.

This is hardly surprising, Last night’s debate was excruciatingly boring, and surely impossible to watch in good faith as a simple voter wondering which party to vote for. We all become commentators if only for our own entertainment, and we should not make the mistake of thinking there is a ‘real’ public out there made up of less sophisticated souls hanging on the party leaders’ every word. Instead, we should aspire to be simple voters ourselves. Unfortunately that’s going to mean some hard work developing a political agenda worth voting for.

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