The problem with elections is that they can feel like game shows. This year the BBC put a countdown to the exit poll and filled the hour preceding the reveal with various fluff and VTs. Then came the inevitable three hours after the poll is revealed where a few results come in and a lot of pundits and politicians speculate what any of it could mean, if it, being the exit poll, is even at all right, which it always is. John Curtice pops his head up like a shaved Gandalf, at various intervals, to talk about the accuracy of the poll. Occasionally, in the Midlands, an MP of note will get in a car. Sometimes the camera will cut to Jeremy Vine to livestream his latest efforts at Minecraft. Nick Robinson ramped up the tension to almost Strictly Come Dancing levels by pondering, a few minutes after 10 pm, just who would take the reins of a Labour Party that hadn’t yet lost the election. The bluntness of this transition is destabilising, as if three years of one’s political life has been suddenly dropped into cold water. As a small grace note, the BBC entrusted the coverage to Huw Edwards, whose gentle Welsh lilt can make the driest of reports sound like a poem by Dylan Thomas. Channel 4 had no such luck, because the election was not all that funny but they had hired lots of comedians to talk about it. In 2017 the election wasn’t funny either, they tend not to be, but it was ambiguous and unpredictable and fed the hours of broadcast discussion. There is nothing to be made of a night of grim ceremony and familiar celebration, other than Judge Rinder debating a racist Gogglebox star.
As a ritual it is stiff and exhausting and, in the case of Channel 4’s “alternative” coverage, hopeless. The landscape of British politics has reached a dangerous watershed, but the media landscape is designed for pendulum elections and general public disinterest. Politics can feel like a distant machine, infrared by media coverage and then by social media conversation, until an election is sprung on us and we try and gather our understanding of the current situation, blind men converging around an elephant. The exit poll is our one point of clarity, before the game of it is triggered all over again. Before sunrise, the exit poll is thuddingly confirmed, and by midday every new take has been written, shared, argued and forgotten. It is a brutal flooding of information that only encourages people to stop caring about politics. There is a privilege to political disengagement that comes from living in a Liberal Democracy, impounded by a vague idea that our political situation will reset. Engagement and partisanship can be perceived, by the disengaged, as naïve acts of fancy, just as people who do not watch football slightly scorn the diehard fans. A bitter result for left and liberal voters always means hapless calls for bipartisan “kindness”, which is really fatigue masked in faux optimism. Yes, fine, we should all be nicer to each other (I learnt that from watching Ricky Gervais’s Derek), but we should never encourage people to care less about results that matter to them, even if anger is an uglier emotion.
The difficulty is that some people are affected by an election on a purely emotional level. A middle-class suburban voter can be shocked and saddened by a result without being crippled by it. For all those who literally have had to survive ten years of Conservative rule, there is another subset of people who, while possibly despising David Cameron and Boris Johnson, have seen very little change to their own lives in the past decade. This latter group are able to turn away from the political world if they should choose to. Elections are the most important moment of one’s political participation, which means they also risk becoming the only moment of one’s political participation. The EU Referendum caused a shock of activism and new media and was the first time in decades where swing voters and political bystanders felt compelled to put their hands to the pump. Now that fight is finally lost, crushingly, and it’s important to reflect that such activism was initially the gateway to further political participation but then began to act as a stone wall. The EU became the thing, the beginning and end of liberal ideology, and now it is truly out of the hands of any activism, certain voters might feel tempted to return to the position of a half-engaged spectator.
The Tories have always had access to a rung of paraphernalia, of the English flag, and of the Queen, and of tweed suits and half empty pint glasses; in this Rorschach test some voters are instinctively moved and some only see hollow symbols or glints of a dead empire. For those who only see the latter, political engagement has never been more vital. Everyone is geared towards a cynical view of how politics works but perhaps that cynicism has to be shelved. We expect the most hopeful ideas, particularly in terms of public services, to be hampered by negotiation and Parliamentary apparatus. We fear the next election and the challenges of a nationwide campaign. We keep politics about politics and disregard the idea of a party as something representative, or indeed the idea of an MP as a public servant. In this disregard we lose the ability to find anything inspiring. The talk of how Labour must win by gearing towards the centre feels like a despairing concession. One particularly dreary take in The Guardian about Corbyn’s campaign failure accused the Labour manifesto being “more stuffed with giveaways than Santa’s grotto”. That reads as reverse-engineered pessimism, and an instruction to readers that they should never actually want something from politics. That sentiment, where progressive investments in state provisions are poised as unrealistic, or at least unrealistic in the current time, is now commonly centrist, but it was once a Tory line. It has been absorbed into centrism because superficially it seems like a sensible approach, and it still mightily benefits Britain’s largest party, a party who were able to campaign on a manifesto so slight and flimsy it may as well have just been a picture of a cat.
To think again of Fukuyama and the end of history, now that theory seems to have been written in exhaustion as much as triumph. There was a new promise of centrism and a system of small disagreements between parties broadly sharing the same economic ideas. Elections in this promised system would not be ideological but a broad formality, akin to taking your car in for a service. This promise was not achieved, and somewhere between New Labour’s talk of “the dynamism of the free market” and David Cameron’s sharp suited social liberalism, there was a failure. Britain is now engaged in a culture war and a fight against the future. That fight is happening across the world, and so far it is being won by nationalism. Until our opposition can embrace a common line of inspirational politics, where governmental pragmatism is not the final word in progression, we are destined to keep the Tories in power. We can expect more; we can expect healthier public services, affordable train fares, free university education, cohesive and forthright environmental policy, and welfare reform aimed at our most vulnerable; we can want and ask for these things and not call ourselves naïve or dismiss the demands as “giveaways”. If we participate and encourage others to, we eliminate the distance between person and party, and a party can grow from a political force into a representative body. This may now be called ideology and partisanship, but it may one day be considered as optimism, and may cause the pragmatic voters to once more cast their ballot with excitement.
Also elections should be public holidays.