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Episode 17: Avoiding the Electorate

John Lanchester

Where are the posters?

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.


Comments


  • 4 May 2015 at 11:53am
    hnryjmes says:
    Perhaps it is a question of geography. I walk to and from the University of Bristol campus every day from my part of Bristol, and on the way there and back I pass at least 20 Green Party posters and signs.

  • 4 May 2015 at 12:05pm
    Bernard Porter says:
    In my professional-types suburb of Hull, there are plenty of Labour posters, a few Green, a couple of Lib Dem, and no Tory of UKIP that I've noticed. All these are in windows (including shop windows) and gardens, none on public poster sites. But I imagine Russell Brand's dramatic and unexpected endorsement just now may win over far more than any number of red and yellow posters. (Quite apart from the blessed Delia,)

  • 4 May 2015 at 12:05pm
    BillC says:
    The street pictured is telling, though. I know its a stock photo, and this is the London Review of Books, so understandable, but that's not a street anyone anywhere else outside the SE of England would expect to see election posters. It is a street of mini-palaces, assuming it is in London, most likely inhabited by members of a footloose elite with no emotional or political connection to the locale.

    OK, that's an overstatement, for sure, but it does do to remember how exceptional London is politically. Hexham and Bletchley are not a big enough sample otherwise, and Labour have been very active on the ground in my Manchester marginal seat, and all over according to Tom Watson on facebook. And social media grassroots politics appears, to me, to have blossomed. #Milifans are ridiculed, but they are something new, and have helped undermined the planned Kinnockisation of Miliband by the right-wing press. Indeed, for the first time, they have shown it possible to actually oppose the Barclayists and the Murdochites on their own terrain.

    Its not long till Thursday, but it will be interesting to see turnout figures, which will tell us how bored the electorate has been. I'd bet (not a lot - a bottle of champagne, as a middle class socialist) - that it is higher than recent general elections. Let's see?

  • 4 May 2015 at 12:17pm
    John234 says:
    In Wells, Somerset there are posters everywhere. The LibDem candidate, Tessa Munt, probably has the most. Last time she was boosted by the Tory incumbent's expenses (he sold manure to himself and then claimed for it). She has to fight to persuade the people disgusted with the tuition fees farrago to vote for her again. Her core support clearly realise this.
    Next most posters is the first time Tory candidate - James Heapey - who has issued a flyer which claims he is going to "stand up for Somerset". He's recently ex-army so he'll probably be quite good at doing that. Hopefully the large number of UKIP posters suggest his support will be diluted.
    There are occasional Greens.
    But my favourite is, "Don't Vote UKIP". A rather dangerous tactic given the apparent attention span of the potential UKIPper - but brilliant for its concision.

  • 4 May 2015 at 1:38pm
    Markus Eichhorn says:
    Try visiting Broxtowe, a marginal on paper, but one in which the unpopular Tory incumbent is lagging far behind the Labour candidate in the polls. Here the billboards may all be Conservative but the windows and gardens have erupted in a riot of red.

  • 4 May 2015 at 2:15pm
    ptr says:
    On the very first morning of the campaign I saw a couple of Tory posters on the short walk from Kew Gardens station to the National Archives! (That's in Zac Goldsmith's traditionally marginal Richmond Park.)

    But hardly anything since then, having spent half the campaign in Central London and half in Central Lancashire.

    Perhaps that's because (Kew aside) most of the places where I live and work are either safe Tory or safe Labour. At least Mr Lanchester's Vauxhall preserves a few relics of 1970s-style ultra-leftism, with different Marxist factions standing against each other, much as (in our youth) they would compete for paper sales on Cornmarket Saturday mornings.

  • 4 May 2015 at 3:42pm
    mototom says:
    In the 1980's in Anthony Beamont-Dark's Selly Oak constituency, the lampposts were adorned with the apparently unironic, "keep it Dark" posters.

  • 4 May 2015 at 10:29pm
    dagglen8 says:
    I have thought the same. In a walk through Tottenham, solid Labour of course, I saw two posters.

  • 4 May 2015 at 10:34pm
    streetsj says:
    I havent seen any party political broadcasts either. Have there been any?

    • 6 May 2015 at 8:35am
      Teresa says: @ streetsj
      A good one by Steve Coogan the other day

  • 4 May 2015 at 10:58pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The Dismantling of the Party Political Broadcast Act was passed discreetly last year while most members were fiddling with their expenses. There became no point in them any more, as all the main parties' chaps looked much the same, which confused the electorate. Also, the lists of parties qualifying for a broadcast extrapolated, proliferated until every single person in the country had 15 minutes.

  • 5 May 2015 at 7:33am
    ianfrancis says:
    In Norwich and South Norfolk, my wife Mave noticed just such an abrupt absence.

    I think we now have a retail politics, to which people no longer feel commitment

    • 6 May 2015 at 9:29am
      TonyHufton says: @ ianfrancis
      Just for the historical record, pace Ian Francis and his wife, my wife and I have noticed that the streets of Norwich South fairly bristle with election signs - more so than ever before. We take this colourful proliferation (largely red, some green) to mean that the good people of this constituency don't intend to be fooled again.

  • 5 May 2015 at 9:34am
    robwitts says:
    Plenty of posters in Lewes, a solitary safe seat for the Lib Dems in blue Sussex. We have lots of orange ones featuring the name of the popular incumbent Norman Baker, but not the name of his party; however there are equal numbers of posters for Labour and the Greens, who are likely to pick up protest votes in the district and town councils. As soon as you leave town, the Conservative posters start, roughly every 500 yards along the main road; these feel more like temporary hoardings than a reflection of any popular sentiment, an impression reinforced by their ubiquity.

  • 5 May 2015 at 4:14pm
    rupert moloch says:
    This is a wonderful collection of anecdotal comments. Puts me in mind of the old Mass Observation project.

    • 5 May 2015 at 6:31pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ rupert moloch
      Indeed. Its of limited use in any one instance. But I think Lanchester's point about a lack of enthusiasm and engagement among the electorate is right, and evidenced by more than just the (non) display of posters.

      Though since we're doing this... I grew up in what was at the time a Labour safe seat, and is now a Lib Dem marginal, likely to fall to Labour. (Manchester Withington, whose LD MP currently holds it by about 500 votes.) As a kid I remember whole streets (practically) being plastered with Labour posters, and not only in '97. Now even thought Labour are probably going to win the seat with a big swing, the last time I was home (last weekend) I saw almost no sign of an election. Like people will vote Labour but with little enthusiasm and no fanfare. This, I think, is Lanchester's point about Vauxhall.

  • 7 May 2015 at 10:22pm
    dxk says:
    Week commentary really

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