The Evolution of the Politician

Politics has got itself into a bit of a pickle. It has a problem. It’s a problem that is shared by all parties but tends to be more detrimental to opposition or challenging parties that an incumbent government.

When I was first starting to understand that what politicians did had an impact on my life things were very different to the current day. We had three TV channels. There was a maximum of one and a half hours of news programming on each day. We had Panorama, This Week and World in Action for in depth coverage of specific issues. We had newspapers. But by and large, they printed news. There was no internet. Obvs.

Also, the “short campaign” was short. Three weeks. If only. The election campaign just ended effectively kicked of as soon as the first-footing ended.

Here’s what I think is the problem.

In those short campaigns with that limited amount of media exposure, politicians used to focus on selling the ‘big’ points about themselves and their parties. “This is who I am and this is what I believe.” Compare that to now, where I would argue there are three main differences.

Firstly, and this is not any unique insight, the media are significantly less deferential. Compare this 1950’s exchange between Clement Atlee and an un-named interviewer:

Interviewer: Tell us something about how you view the election prospects.

Attlee: Oh we shall go in with a good fight. Very good. Very good chance of winning if we go in competently. We always do.

Interviewer: On what will Labour take its stand?

Attlee: Well, that’s what we shall be announcing shortly.

Interviewer: What are your immediate plans Mr Attlee?

Attlee: My immediate plans are to go down to a committee to decide on just that thing as soon as I can get away from here.

Interviewer: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the coming election?

Attlee: No.

These days, aside from the non-musical sections of The Marr Show, you’d never hear a politician interviewed like that. You’d never see a politician behave in that way.

This is not a “the right-wing media won the election” argument. It‘s “the media have swung to far from being deferential to being so hectoring that politicians aren’t allowed to string together an argument” argument. Which leads directly to the second issue.

Politicians know that they are not going to get a word in edgeways after the 15-20 seconds of grace they get at the beginning of an interview. So they have changed their behaviour. They no longer try to explain who they are or what they believe in. They have no time to explain what their own values and policies are. This leads to politicians being defined by their differences from each other rather than by their own selves.

This also means that because politician A cannot allow themselves to be seen as the same as politician B they try to define themselves as different on every issue, even if it is by the smallest margin. For example, to use an education issue (it’s a contractual obligation of the blog) there is virtually no difference between “flat-cash protected for student numbers” and “protected in real terms” for school budgets. But that was what the education element of the election was about. No wonder it was hardly covered.

Inevitably an incumbent governing party has the upper hand here as their position is the de facto “normal” against which the differences are judged.

This makes it hard for the casual observer (which is what most voters are) to get a good understanding of the values of the politicians. Instead they have to try and piece it together from the differences they are hearing that the individual has from the existing governments policies. If they don’t have a clear idea what those are all they will hear is a politician bickering with an interviewer about the difference between “real terms adjusted” and “adjusted real terms”. It’s a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw blindfold, with one person describing the picture and another shouting out the shape of each of the pieces still in the box.

Which leads on to the third part of the problem.

Because there is so much more TV time to fill politicians are on the TV far too much. They spend a lot of this time having to differentiate themselves from politician B. There is a record of all these differentiations. Inevitably, over a five year period, a politician will say something that either contradicts (or could be interpreted to contradict) something they (or one of their colleagues) has said before. Or events will have changed to make their previous statement invalid and make them look less than prescient. It is no bad thing that politicians should be on top of the detail, but there are limits to that expectation.

What this had led to is a new breed of politician to appear, the professional politician. Steeped in policy wonkery they can quote the stats, they can create and then sit on the right side of the dividing lines. But what they don’t seem to be able to do is convince the electorate either that they are like them or that they understand their needs, desires and aspirations. This is more obvious on the opposition benches at the moment but that is purely a function of the government being in government. They’re simply a generation of politicians behind.

My belief is that these issues are key drivers pushing people away from the ballot box. Since 1997 election turnout has stuck below 70%. It has improved from a real low, but now seems to be stuck again.

In a democracy when the second largest party is “Did Not Vote” we have a problem.