The Petty General Election

Ed Miliband admitted this week that the satirical TV show The Thick of It can at times be a bit too close to reality. On recent evidence, the worry is that the programme might actually play down the conflicts, spin-mania and incompetency which appear to plague the political elite.

As the 2015 UK General Election looms ever nearer, it is becoming increasingly difficult to call who will be the winners and losers in the rat race, with an all-out majority looking extremely unlikely. While this should make the campaign all the more interesting for voters and desperate for party leaders, so far all it has led to is name-calling and squabbling, which has really driven home the depressing nature of the decision we have to make.

In a substantial proportion of people’s minds, the choice on 7th May amounts to one of good vs. evil. The Tories are seen as out for themselves and their rich public schoolboy cronies, while Labour reflect the human side that wants everyone in society to get a better deal (but maybe not going quite as far as many would like). This chasm between choices is bridged by the competency argument: one may prefer the red ideals of Ed and Co, but do they really know what they are doing? Constantly threatening business and creating a stigma over wealth-creation is no way to stimulate the economy. While Dave gives you that uncomfortable feeling that he could spring out of the nearest dark corner at any moment and force you to polish his boots, the economy have stabilised in the last few years and one could be excused for wondering whether it’s a case of ‘better the devil you know’ (note: so far as the author is aware, Kylie has not yet expressed her view on this particular election).

The Lib Dems appear to have reverted to the same position they have always held in living memory apart from the heady last few weeks of the 2010 election: one of the ‘third party’ which might be relevant in some close seats or as a protest vote, but that can’t really be taken too seriously. Interestingly, though, with the votes likely to be even closer than last time, Old Nick may hold the key again when deciding whether it is Ed or Dave who walks into No.10. There are other competitors this time though, with UKIP and the SNP much closer than ever before. While it is easy to dismiss them as raving racists or nationalists not relevant to the UK-wide debate (in that specific order), they could carry a huge say in who becomes our next PM. The other nationalist parties and the Greens will also have some impact, especially if these smaller parties decide to band together.

What has most upset me in the campaign so far (and there has been a lot) is the rhetoric coming from all sides, but particularly the Labour party. Readers will not have had to be too alert to figure out that my leanings are naturally to the left of centre. However, from a starting position of a rather easy-to-spread message of hope – who can argue with someone saying they want to reduce inequality? – the party has consistently resorted to a smear campaign against the Tories and Lib Dems. It breaks my heart to receive email after email from the party focusing on what everyone else has done wrong, rather than on what Labour can do right. My (least) favourite email of recent weeks was a poll sent to Labour party supporters asking:

“In the Budget yesterday, George Osborne claimed that “we’re all in this together.” After 5 years of a Tory government, is that how you feel?”

What a pointless waste of drivel. On what planet is a Labour supporter going to vote in the poll and say they have enjoyed a Tory government? More to the point, what is the poll going to be used for?

The problem is, everyone is at it. I fully accept that the opinions I express above are not held by everyone. What I would like is a debate surrounding the substance, not the form, of the matters which are important to voters. Unfortunately the Tories aren’t adverse to a bit of mud-slinging themselves, nor indeed is anyone in UK politics, and point-scoring is increasingly becoming the focus rather than the actual policies which people believe will make the country better.

Another thing that has put me off over the last year has been the vilification of Ed Miliband in the press, largely for things nothing to do with his ability as a policy-maker. The sausage roll incident was, admittedly, a PR disaster much akin to The Thick Of It, but since then there have been an array of awkward photos and catchy headlines set to undermine him, nearly all of which could be done to any person if a particular journalist or photographer took a particular dislike to them and decided to carry out a vendetta against them 24/7. Where is the national interest in publishing a photo that, while it is embarrassing, is only embarrassing because it is how Miliband’s face looked at that particular moment it moved in a particular direction? The fact that he looks awkward is irrelevant. This forms part of a wider question about celebrity culture in the UK, and our obsession with appearance. It is difficult to see how we can realistically expect politicians to move away from squabbling and name-calling, not to mention “photo ops” and “sound bites”, when the paparazzi feed off the game like vultures and discard anyone who doesn’t play by their rules.

The one flicker of hope is that once the election is over, whatever the result, there will be a chance for some respite and we could even have a period of optimism and hard work, where the new government plans ahead and only looks to what can be done, not what can be said of others.

For now though, we remain in a vicious cycle from which it seems impossible to escape. This week, the defence secretary Michael Fallon referred to Ed Miliband stabbing his brother in the back when he beat him to the Labour leadership (because David was older so, obviously, deserved the leadership more) and that this meant that he was unable to guarantee the security of the UK. This attack using a deplorably tenuous link was another example of how the old boys’ network of politics is increasingly leading us away from debate about policy towards playground squabbling. Our old friend Tony Blair described Fallon’s character assassination of Miliband as “desperate”, but the whole thing seems hopelessly desperate to me. The petty general election is at full throttle.

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