Friday 30 April 2010

The narrow imagination of the BBC

I know it’s 24 hours ago now, but I’ve reached two conclusions about the third leaders’ debate. Perhaps, more accurately, they are two emotions

The first one relates to Cameron’s bizarre repetition of the word ‘grip’. Often used ungrammatically as in “we must grip the banks”. Strange, but clear evidence of the testing of words to destruction before Conservative focus groups. Gripping was obviously something the poor interviewees approved of.

It makes me realise that what actually made Nick Clegg’s performance stand out was his authenticity. His unusual rhythm, and strange awkward – but authentic – pauses, flagged up that this was real.

The third time round, perhaps they were also too familiar to seem so breathtakingly real as before, especially once Cameron seemed to have controlled his enraged facial twitches. But looking back on the debate last night, my main memory is all that Cameronesque ‘gripping’ and I find it rather disturbing. Because, in the end, fake sends a bit of a shiver down the spine.

Which brings me onto the second emotion. Rage at the BBC.

The first debate was thrilling because it was the first time we heard those same questions on immigration, schools and cuts. The second time we heard them, in week 2, there was still some variation to keep us engaged. But when the BBC chose those questions again in the third week, I really felt like throwing something at the TV.

As if somehow the BBC believes it is their duty to narrow the election debate to certain approved topics – the same ones their interviewers harp on about every day. You could almost sense them clapping themselves on the back for their collective decision to include immigration again.

Not that it isn’t important – of course it is – but what about questions on the environment? How about airports? How about civil liberties, high streets, post offices – aren’t they important too?

But no, the BBC has decided that the approved issues must be dragged out again. Consequently there was an exhausting sense of déjà vu about the third debate. I don’t think that was really the fault of the politicians. It was the miserably unimaginative choice of questions.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

What is Mandelson thinking?

I’ve been wondering what Peter Mandelson has been doing with all this extending the hand of friendship to the Lib Dems, who they plainly despise.

I think it is this: they are gambling that hyping the Clegg effect even further will pop the bubble sooner.

Mandelson thinks that, if he is clever, he can make the word Clegg synonymous with media hype, with public emotionalism like there was at Princess Diana’s funeral. He thinks he can make sophisticated people sneer at the whole thing and distance themselves from it, before there is a general slide back into cynicism and then, well, we might as well all vote Labour again.

It may work. The reason I think it won’t is that, actually, there was more behind Nick Clegg during last week’s debate than there was behind the others. This isn’t actually a battle between a phantasm created by media hype and some solid, reliable figures, unaccountably passed over. In fact, Clegg had something to say and the others didn’t.

Friday 16 April 2010

Shields and swords

I’ve been a member of the Lib Dems since 1979, a terrifying thought. I hadn’t realised I was so old (though I was terribly young when I joined). For the past 31 years, I have been waiting for the moment when the Liberal case could be put with the combination of sanity and passion that Nick Clegg generated last night.

I went to sleep afterwards with an amazing sense of peace. It was everything I hoped (though kind of typical of ITV that there was no green question) since I first imagined Nick as leader of the party.

Of course, we are now going to have to be like a submarine after a successful attack on a convoy. We will have to endure the coming depth charge attack from the Conservatives, but it is worth it for the opportunities created.

I also learned a huge amount last night, about what is possible and what is not when it comes to policy that can be communicated. I am only too aware of what I have failed to understand, and got wrong, in the past.

But one thing I felt I got right, and I’m now sure about. This division between ‘shield’ issues and ‘sword’ issues – the distinction between those issues we can use to gain votes and those where we just have to protect ourselves – is nonsense.

The best form of defence is attack, and there is no area where we can’t formulate policies based on clear Liberal thinking which can be used to press forward the cause. Anything else is a kind of pathetic sense that what we believe is somehow bound always to be unpopular.

Having just spent two months in the USA, and talked to endless miserable and depressed people on the left – convinced that there is nothing they can do to tackle the tide from the right – I feel this is a lesson we urgently need to learn, before we end up like them.

So many on the left, including some Lib Dems I serve with, seem to have an inner assumption that our policies are deeply unpopular and must at all costs be hidden behind a ‘shield’. All else is populism.

Well, it’s nonsense. In fact, an articulate, aggressive liberalism, of the kind we saw from Nick Clegg last night, is the only way of countering the slow spread of lazy Fox News-style intolerance.

Right, now – close watertight doors and prepare for the depth-charges!