Tuesday 5 May 2015

Why is the election so po-faced?

Bringing home the bacon: The Labour leader tried to confront his inability to match his camera-friendly rivals, which culminated in the above image of him struggling to eat a bacon sandwich There never was an election campaign in history, at least outside the USA, so desperately lacking in authenticity.

Yes, there are some exceptions.  The revelation of SNP aggression last night, as they battered Jim Murphy and Eddie Izzard, did at least appear to be a glimpse of something real.  Otherwise, it is exhausted slogans (exhumed from the 1940s), fake concern, and very, very careful politicians.

I found myself thinking about this a little more after the revelation of Ed Miliband's much-ridiculed tablet of stone.  It revealed the need for something authentic - it was just that the words slipped through your fingers.  The pledges were as good as meaningless.

The trouble is that these very careful words are there for a reason: fear of the other side's negative campaigning.  Fear of the forensic interview or a hectoring tabloid.

One of the few national politicians who manages to wrap himself in the mantle of authenticity is Boris Johnson, mainly because he dares to use humour and, when the humour gives out, he uses the most dangerously lurid images.  The idea of Ed Miliband with a monkey on his back stays with me, whether I like it or not.

But the authenticity of Boris is in doubt as well, rather as Tony Blair's authenticity was.  Is it a skilful hoax? Is there anything there behind the mask? Does the man actually have any convictions at all? The jury remains out.

When I was writing about authenticity more intensely (see my book of essays The Age to Come), I happened to hear one of Howard Dean's campaign managers interviewed on the subject.  To seem authentic, he said, politicians need to go off message.  Just occasionally.

Perhaps it's too much to expect them to do so now, 48 hours before polling.  It is just so dangerous.  But the rewards of getting it right are pretty high, if only they dared.

But I do find it strange that they don't even take the intermediate path, as Boris Johnson does.  There are nations which might take offence when a politician makes a joke, or feel that the issues they represent have been demeaned.  But we are not the USA: why are so few of our politicians being humorous?

I remember Lord Holme, who ran the Lib Dem campaign in 1997, making a specific point of making jokes at the morning press conference.  He did so quite deliberately to differentiate the party from the others. Not politicians' jokes either - these can tend to be heavy-handed non-humour at their opponents' expense - but real humour of a more genuine and human kind.

Why are they so staggeringly po-faced?  Do they really think that humour will undermine their own seriousness?

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