There was a curious incident with a microphone during the Conservative manifesto launch. David Cameron gave his speech in the usual manner – tepid, uninspiring, broadly competent – and then took questions from the gathered journalists. Whenever he pointed to a journalist a party worker would dash over and stick the microphone out by their mouth. Several journalists tried to hold it, as is usually the way with these things, but she kept it firmly in her grip. Clearly she’d been instructed not to give it to them. Journalists with a microphone can ask follow-up questions.
Cameron hates follow up questions, because they are the only way to really hold someone to account. One question is useless. You ask something damaging, the politician appears to address the question, then deploys a bridging phrase, and then just ignores it and talks about whatever he wants to talk about.
Once you’ve spotted this technique you’ll see it constantly. Take the phrase ‘what this is really about’. Miliband loves this phrase. People ask him about all sorts of things: legalising cannabis, low literacy rates, stop and search, bank lending, whatever. He starts by addressing it – ‘yes, we do have a problem with literacy rates in this country’ – then says ‘but look, what this is really about’, and then he just pontificates about the ‘crisis of living standards’ or the ‘squeezed middle’ or whatever his key theme is. Bridging phrases get you from a problematic particularity to a focus-group approved abstraction.
Follow-up questions kill bridging phrases. They bring the politician back to specifics and close off their room to manoeuvre. Politicians are fine with scrutiny if it involves one question. Any professional politician worth his salt can deal with that. But follow-up questions are challenge. That’s why Tory HQ instructed that party worker to keep hold of the microphone. They want control of the questions.
The struggle over who holds the microphone pretty much defines the way the general election has been run thus far. Political campaigns are never a great time for politics. Ideas die at elections and photo-ops replace debates. Very occasionally, if you’re very lucky, you’ll get a bidding war on something, like when you’ve pitched your Ebay item just right and get to sit there watching all the lovely numbers go up and up and up. Forces of political fortune sometimes combine to force parties to compete, as now, on free child care for three-to-four-year-olds (Labour offering 25 hours, Tories offering 30) or, as in the 1950s, on house-building. That’s good, solid democracy going on right there. But it’s rare.
Most elections are a succession of photo ops designed to neutralise image problems. If you’re an incumbent you want to look human, if you’re a challenger you want to look statesmanlike. This is the way it goes.
This election has been worse than most. That’s due to three reasons. Firstly, it’s a close race. Despite the odd outlier poll, most surveys put Labour and the Tories neck-and-neck on about 33% or 34%. In that kind of situation, you can’t afford a fuck up. And elections – when lots of very stressed people are not sleeping and working very hard in an emotional climate, with an army of press everywhere filming and tweeting everything – are primed for fuck ups.
Secondly, Cameron hates politics. He envisages himself as the reasonable patrician – aloof, above it all, never really questioned about anything. He should have been a magistrate. Few PMs have done more to shut down ways of holding the executive to account. He scrapped the monthly Downing Street press conferences Tony Blair introduced. He never does serious interviews – which explains that look of abject fear in his eyes when he sat down for his grilling with Jeremy Paxman the other day. His government has closed down or made practically impossible most of the ways in which people can hold the state to account, including judicial review, the Freedom of Information Act, parliamentary questions or press conferences – which he holds rarely and only for a couple of questions.
Finally, both Labour and the Tories have triangulated and red-lined themselves into oblivion. They are no longer able to talk about the very big differences between them. Take the EU referendum. Under normal considerations this would be thought of as A Big Thing. If the Tories win it’ll be held in 2017. Before then, or possibly afterwards, they will tear themselves apart in as bloody a way as overweight middle-aged men who have never been in a fight can muster. It could very well result in the exit of Britain from the EU. Hell, if Ukip and their lunatic allies get their way, it could result in the mass expulsion of European citizens currently residing in the UK.
But no-one mentions it. The Tories fear the consequences of the vote are so big they could scare people off – certainly centrist voters in marginal constituencies. They also think big business will collectively shit itself when it realises what could happen in two years’ time. Labour doesn’t talk about it because it is generally considered unpopular to deny the public a say on something. It is a policy so big no-one dares speak its name.
The two parties are also in a conspiracy of silence over the massive spending cuts to come in the next parliament. Journalists press them on it when they’ve a chance, but they never attack each other for it. The glass house gazes also into thee.
So here we are. Nick Clegg’s highlights of the election have involved him stroking a hedgehog and then going on a zip-line. Cameron’s have involved several trips to primary schools, including one where a young girl appeared to fall asleep next to him. He has literally taken more questions from children than he has from journalists– and even then one of them stumped him. A young child asked him who he would like to win the election if it wasn’t him. He stumbled around searching for words for nearly a minute then gave up. Miliband is no better, he travels around meeting children and families. The debates are few and far between.
All of them turn down interviews. They are terrified of them. In their world, everything would be a photo op, which is ironic because they all look so desperately tedious, like an android made of flesh and beige carpets.
I spoke to an Australian journalist the other day who said they’d hardly covered the UK election. I desperately hope that continues and the international press don’t start paying attention. It would be like inviting friends over only for your uncle to piss himself at the dinner table.
Our best hope now is no-one even realises it’s happening. Either that, or journalists agree amongst ourselves that we’ll take that microphone from the party worker’s hands, even if we have to have to wrestle them for it.