My fevers, aches and coughing fits finally eased last night so I finally had the energy and concentration to sit down and watch the Sky News/Channel 4 interviews with the leaders of the two main parties.
The first thing to say is that I thought David Cameron won on the night but it was a hollow victory. All the interesting things that need to be said are about Miliband. Miliband might have come second but that’s purely a political score. If it were a football match, Cameron was Stoke City parking eleven players in front of the net and going through on away goals. Miliband was on the losing side but he played the better football. If you were to follow a team based on just this performance, glory seekers might support Cameron. Fans of good football would want to follow the red team.
But let’s begin with Cameron. Even if the novelty wore off years ago, I’m often surprised at how personable David Cameron can be. He says warm friendly things with such a practised conviction that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he’s been in charge of the government for the past five years. Over that time, the Tories have lost none of their ‘Nasty Party’ vibe and, in fact, they seem to have enhanced it. In a sense, it’s an amazing skill to develop. I’m not quite sure how Cameron, the Prime Minister, managed to somehow distance himself from the government of Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne. He is, I suppose, the velvet glove disguising the iron fist. I read recently that he considers himself a One Nation Tory yet his idol was Baroness Thatcher. That is a big clue to the man and perhaps explains what has happened to the nation under his watch.
On screen, he’s the smiling face, well groomed hair, with compassionate answers which you know he’s practised ad nauseum in the mirror. He’s one of those politicians trained never to point but to use that strange thumb to knuckle gesture that irritates you once you spot it being used. He’s another politician who believes that his family shouldn’t be used to make political points yet he’s another who happily uses his family to make political points. He also plays the One Nation Tory so well. He’s the Etonian toff who wants to dedicate a few years to the national service of ‘saving the nation’ before he goes off to make his fortune. The reality is that he’s a Thatcherite at heart; the leader of a deeply radical government that believes that the market is the best arbiter for government as well as business. He is the merciless opponent of real standards and that ‘closed shop’ mentality brought about by such ‘outmoded’ concepts as professional qualifications or experience. His government repeatedly helps the rich and uses the poor as the red meat to feed their braying constituency. Paxman’s question about zero hour contacts was the best of the night but the consequences of that weren’t taken to their logical conclusions, exploding the reality of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture of government and (I suppose) the media. Miliband is regularly attacked because of the proposed ‘Mansion Tax’ that might hit the super wealthy but Cameron rarely has to defend the real ‘Bedroom Tax’ which is already hurting poor people. Instead, the charm of the man carried him through the evening. He laughed and smiled and said we’re all in this together and let’s jolly well get the chuffing job finished! At the end of the hour, the audience knew no more about him or what the next five years might truly entail.
One of the only things to really note about the first half of the show was that Kay Burley was too sycophantic to the PM. She has a track record, of course. Her career at Sky News has been marked by repeated examples of her allowing her impartiality to slip. She often gives authorities an easy ride, her saccharin interviewing technique landing many one-on-ones with people in power. Yet, to anybody disadvantaged or protesting against the status quo, it’s a quite different style that emerges: she becomes combinative, bullying, hectoring, her interviews laced with tart asides and last word quips, usually all followed by a knowing look to camera once the interview is over. She channels the Fox News spirit into a British sphere and it’s wholly unwelcome. Given her past history, there wasn’t a presenter I thought less suited to this debate and so it proved as she punctuated the Miliband session with editorial judgements such as ‘that’s a politician’s answer’ and the moment she interjected ‘let’s not talk about the conservatives, let’s talk about what you do. I’m sure members of the audience remember about […] the note that was left behind’. Why Sky chose Burley just baffles me when they also have the wonderful Anna Jones.
By the time Miliband appeared on stage, my feeling was that Cameron had set the bar pretty low. Miliband only needed to turn up to win an easy victory. Only, it didn’t turn out like that.
His preparation was Miliband’s undoing. He had a deliberate strategy, which was clearly the product of whatever awful ‘people’ people the Labour HQ are currently employing. He’s clearly gone through the media friendly drills: ask the audience member their name and preface every answer with little lead in phrases such as ‘let me explain why’. It made for a polished performance but, really, it stripped him of his personality. He was attempting to play the game by Cameron’s rules and highlighted the strange dichotomy that exists between what we want of our politicians and what we probably deserve.
There’s a phenomenon in current British politics that’s barely been explained. The rise of the New Right is not simply a seismic shift of political allegiance. UKIP membership is not simply the far right of the Tory party. If it were, they wouldn’t command 20% in the polls. Instead, they’ve eaten into Labour and Lib Dems support. The shifts are fluid, of course, and go many ways. Some Lib Dems might have moved to Labour but a surprising number of old Labour supporters now throwing their votes towards UKIP.
UKIP’s success, I would argue, isn’t merely about a current concern with immigration. It’s surprising to see many people professing their support for UKIP when previously they’d have been staunchly Labour. The explanation is that it’s not simply about policy. UKIP are more Tory than the Tories and many of their votes would never have voted Tory in their lives. Instead, it’s about language and the nature of British political debate which started with Tony Blair. Iraq might be the legacy that most people associate with Blair but, for me, it was the neutering of the political arena. Blair’s government were master manipulators of the message. They used the techniques of PR to convince people that they were right. Ministers were told to remove beards and use key phrases. It led to a bastardized politics that remains to this day. It’s the politics of the coming election when argument will be replaced by billboards, sound bites and cheap smears. We already hear the key phrases such as ‘long term economic plan’ and ‘for hardworking people’. It’s Pavlovian politics, whereby you repeat an untruth enough times that it takes on the permanence of a truth.
It’s a political strategy that suits Cameron immensely and he plays it supremely well. David Miliband would have also played it well but brother Ed is not suited to the game. In fact, not only should he not play it but not playing that game might be his greatest strength.
I contest that UKIP’s success is primarily down to the figure of Nigel Farage, an odd looking man, often seen standing in a pub his huge ugly teeth on show as he laughs open mouthed. He’s graceless, without much sense of fashion. He’s exactly the opposite of Cameron and, here’s the important part, people love him because of that. His virtue is that he’s not cut from the same cloth as David Cameron or Tony Blair. He’s a throwback not just to a bygone England but to a former political style. He appeals to many people who simply feel that politicians talk over them, in cleverly rehearsed rhetoric which never answers a single question. Farage is popular because he’s one of the few alternatives to vanilla party politics. Yet on the basis of last night’s performance, Ed Miliband is about 90% of the way towards having a similar common touch. It’s just that 10% of polish which gets in the way.
For example, at one point, Paxman demanded that Miliband set a figure for the potential population of the UK in the coming years. 70 million? 75 million? 80 million? Miliband tried to play the game. He refused to provide a number and instead tried to move the debate on to the question about our membership of the EU. ‘I haven’t mentioned the European Union,’ waited Paxman. ‘You’re making up questions yourself’.
It was the lowest point of the evening as the audience sniggered. Having been the subject of enough schoolyard bullying in my life, I recognised it for what it was. Somebody asks you to name your favourite band and no matter what you answer, you become a laughing stock to a crowd all too ready to follow the example set by bully. I’ve always liked Paxman but I thought he went too far. Perhaps he knew that himself given that we could faintly hear him ask ‘Are you okay, Ed?’ as the credit’s rolled.
Yet oddly it was the bulling that seemed to break Miliband’s nerve. His temper frayed and Miliband rose to another level. The last five minutes of his interview had more conviction than the rest of the show. Had he been that passionate and informal in the preceding mannered minutes, the night would have been his.
What struck me about the debate was that perhaps Miliband’s greatest virtue might be that he’s nothing like Cameron. Large portions of the electorate are turned off politics because politicians don’t answer straight questions with straight answers. Miliband could turn that to his advantage. John Major did exactly that when he deployed his stupid crate of oranges that everybody thought a ridiculous ploy until it connected with the nation in an odd but meaningful way.
I’m not sure if Miliband need a crate of oranges but I think he simply needs to find that edge. He needs to stop listening to his ‘people’ people and stop being so damn nice. He’s not going to out-nice Cameron. What he could do is galvanise an electorate who are sick of political sock puppetry. He could talk to a nation largely unrepresented by an Etonian elite running the country from the heart of a city that feels ever more remote to the rest of the nation. He should turn the debate from the questions the media want to ask to the questions that the rest of the country want to hear answered. You do not win the country simply by winning London. The only question is how Labour go about doing that. If they play the election on Cameron’s terms, they won’t been seen as a viable alternative. They should instead play the game as Farage plays it: with self-deprecating humour, spontaneous moments of genuine character, off the cuff encounters with common people even if that means having those ‘media’ moments with dissenters. I caught just a hint of it last night but for the first time I realised that Miliband’s lack of polish and willingness to engage the electorate might be the very thing that just might win him the forthcoming election. It’s only a matter of whether Labour have the wits to realise this.by