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How we ruined election campaigns

Richard Burgon (L), Nicola Sturgeon (centre) and Rishi Sunak (R) in the ITV election debate. Credit: Getty.

December 11, 2019 - 7:00am

This is a high stakes election, but a low energy campaign. This week it finally flared into life, but with just three days to go it’s too little, too late.

Why was the rest of it so boring? Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I can’t help feeling that election campaigns used to be better. If so, here’s what’s gone wrong:

1. Length

Election campaigns last forever these days. It’s not just the official campaign period, but getting the election called in the first place — a process complicated by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Let’s hope the next government repeals it. That way we can go straight into the campaign without the endless run-up, and get the whole thing done in three or four weeks.

2. TV debates

We’ve had these in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 — and they don’t get any better. They simply don’t suit a country with two big parties and lots of small ones (especially when most of the latter are grouped on one side of the political spectrum). The only way to be fair to everyone is not to have them at all.

Let’s go back to interviews only, with the parties and broadcasters agreeing to a full schedule well ahead of the campaign.

3. Micro-targeting

Television changed electioneering forever and now social media is doing the same. By allowing tiny slivers of the electorate to be identified and targeted, there is no such thing as the election campaign anymore, but rather many micro-campaigns that the conventional media can neither influence nor report upon.

There’s no turning back the clock on this one. Our democracy is digital now — in fact, our entire culture. Increasingly, the only place where people come together outside their online silos is where they live in the real world. Politics should be localised accordingly.

4. Manifestos

When one of the major parties has lost all sense of fiscal continence, election pledges lose all meaning. There’s no point in parties setting out their priorities — because the unlimited spending party will simply promise to spend more than anyone else on everything.

Unable to have a sensible argument about money, the debate inevitably moves on to ‘values’ issues like Brexit. Those may be what we should be talking about — but usually we already know where the parties stand on such matters. The detailed, costed manifesto is increasingly irrelevant.

5. Dead cat strategies

The metaphor of putting a dead cat on the table refers to the introduction of a deliberately shocking topic to the conversation. The idea is to distract everyone’s attention from where it isn’t wanted or keep it fixed on where it is.

Dead-catting has become more subtle. After all, it doesn’t take much to distract the media — a row about who does what interview with whom is enough to do the trick. Meanwhile, using a dodgy statistic or anecdote to court controversy can do more to set the agenda than a properly thought-out case.

Spin has always been part of politics, but there’s a difference between embellishing the truth and deliberately displacing it with arguments about arguments.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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