Episode 17: Avoiding the Electorate
Something has been bugging me about this election, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and just in the last week or so I’ve realised what it is. It’s the near-complete absence of posters. Not just posters, but the whole apparatus of visual paraphernalia: banners and billboards and advertising. This is my fifth general election in the same street, and it’s the first time I’ve never seen a single election poster in the road. Or at least, I thought it was, but on close inspection, I’ve just found two very small ones, one Labour and one Green, out of about 80 households. There are also two posters asking to ‘Save Our NHS’ from the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees (if you’re wondering – I was – it’s because ‘38 degrees is the angle at which an avalanche happens’.) But even though there are a couple of posters, they’re barely above A4 size. The visual impact of the election is very small.
This constituency, Vauxhall, is a rock-solid Labour seat with a long-serving and respected MP, Kate Hoey, so I’d come to the conclusion this was just an accident of geography. Since Friday, though, I’ve been to a funeral in Bletchley and a literary festival in Hexham and on a stroll across central London (King’s Cross to Baker Street), and I didn’t see a single poster. I’m not saying there weren’t any, anywhere; I’m just saying that if there were, they were so few and so inconspicuous that I missed them. That would never have been possible at any other general election.
The reason, presumably, is that the parties, given the UK’s tight electoral spending limits, are choosing to spend their cash elsewhere. The money will be going on more targeted and specific means of contacting likely or possible voters. From the practical point of view, that makes sense. You don’t change your mind about which party you’ll be voting for because of a poster. At best a poster might make you think, crikey there sure are a lot of Greens/Kippers/Whatever around here; but that’s all. Targeting voters makes more sense.
At the same time, though, the absence of visual signals makes it seem as if the election has retreated from public space. Given that the politicians are also retreating and seem deeply frightened of real contact with the electorate, that’s unfortunate. Avoiding ‘unscripted’ encounters with the electorate is the same as avoiding the electorate.
The Americanisation and professionalisation of our politics has helped to break this general election. I don’t much like Prime Minister’s Questions, noisy and uninformative as it is, but political enthusiasts from all around the world tune it to watch it, because it’s unique. That’s what British democracy is meant to look like: argumentative, confrontational, transparent, and public. This election has been the opposite of that. In British democracy, decisive things are supposed to happen in the public arena. By avoiding that arena, the parties have helped to ensure that nothing decisive has happened. So everything is stuck. The result is an electorate that’s bored and fretful, and anxious about what Friday will bring.