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The Day of Truth

The Day of Truth

🕔12.Dec 2019

So, here it is. The polls will open in a few minutes. Contain your excitement at the back, writes Kevin Johnson.

Until a few years ago, I would take any opportunity to counter lazy accusations that ‘politics changes nothing’, ‘they’re in it for themselves’ and ‘all politicians are liars.’

I even started to sketch out ideas for radio or TV programmes that might explore the realities of politics and highlight the work of hard working parliamentarians.

Listening/viewing figures for such content would struggle to reach beyond the decimal point today, unless categorised under comedy.

Like many others, I suspect I face the prospect of today’s election with a mix of dread and delight.

Dread at some of the possible results and consequences that follow.

This is the ‘least worst’ election. A day when many voters will be putting an ‘X ‘against the candidate/party they believe the least worst of a bad bunch, or at least best placed to beat the worst possible MP/leader.

Delight at the prospect at staying up all night watching the results roll in and the live broadcasting extravagaza that makes Election Night.

For some, a pre-Christmas election is a nightmare. For me, Election Night is Christmas come early.

This is the election which pits a man who struggles with the truth against a man who struggles with the detail.

An election called to Get Brexit Done, but which will do nothing of the sort. Mr Johnson may win enough seats to secure the passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill but will face a now familiar set of impossible trade offs. As the deadline for extending the transition period approaches in the middle of next year, we will be back in crisis territory.

Mr Corbyn has sought to keep as far away from Brexit as humanly possible. He has reverted to secure ground – austerity, public services and the NHS. Not for Sale became his chorus, even though the issue would be drug pricing in a UK/US trade deal rather than the privatisation of an enormous and complex public organisation.

Both Get Brexit Done and Not for Sale may prove successful in their own terms.

But they may also prove insufficient in the task of forming a working majority or securing a mandate that will stand the test of a few months in parliament.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has all but collapsed through strategic errors and inflated ego.

Jo Swinson should have emerged a winner through the middle with the most established remain/People’s Vote credentials and a more youthful, female offer than the proposition of two flawed leaders.

Instead, she blundered with an overstretched Revoke policy and over ambitious claim to No 10.

In leadership terms, it is difficult to look beyond Nicola Sturgeon. Whatever you think of her key policies – on independence and Stop Brexit – she is by far the best operator at leadership level.

It is difficult to move beyond utter despair at the state of our politics. I hesitate to be overtly critical of people who put themselves up for election and, in the main, stand up for what they believe through a sense of civic duty.

Maybe they are simply bad at media duties, but we are experiencing the least impressive collection of frontline politicians in my lifetime.

To turn on the radio or telly and be confronted by Richard Burgon, Barry Gardiner, Andy MacDonald, Paul Scully, Kwasi Kwarteng or the most inappropriately named politician in the universe, James Cleverly, is a truly soul destroying experience.

Thankful for small mercies, both Jacob Rees-Mogg and Diane Abbott seem to have gone missing for most of the campaign.

To be fair, Michael Gove and John McDonnell are robust media performers but can simultaneously strike dread into large sections of the electorate.

In the post-match analysis of this election, much will centre on the role of the media. Boris Johnson’s refusal to face Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan or Julie Etchingham. His replacement by an ice block and a ministerial stand in who is not even of full Cabinet rank. Refusing to put up Conservative representatives on programmes including Newsnight and Channel Four News.

Avoiding scrutiny – now Mr Johnson’s principal trait – plunged new depths as he pocketed a reporter’s phone earlier this week and later hid in a giant fridge.  We should not have expected more from the man who unlawfully prorogued parliament.

The leader’s approach to truth has been reflected in the Tory social media operation, from helpfully editing interviews to offering live full fact checks.

As reports have indicated this week, Labour has not played as fast and loose on social media. But it looks like they have not taken advantage of the extra balance demanded of broadcast media during an election to defeat a party that has been in power for nine and half years, which has been responsible for a four-year long Brexit crisis and a policy of austerity that has holed out public services.

Labour’s lack of clarity in the face of media questions – from four day weeks in the NHS to compensating WASPI women – has not helped their cause. Complaints of anti-Semitism and the woeful handling of the crisis would never go away.

As the for the Lib Dems, who doesn’t love a good bar chart?

It will surely be time to look at how the digital space can be better governed in respect of political promotion and discussion.

Time also to establish a commission to bring order to the business of TV Debates and Leader’s Interviews.

Some reflection on how political reporters use different media outlets in different ways – distinguishing between reports and analysis on TV/radio and more informal commentary on social media and podcasts – would be helpful. The practice of relying on ‘sources’ for the inside track – and the desire to constantly break news – needs re-thinking.

Between the politicians and the media, the public is losing faith. One of the most striking aspects of the EU Referendum campaign was the number of people who told me they didn’t know where to just find the facts; they didn’t know who or what to believe.

That feeling has only worsened since 2016, even though there have never been so many quality sources of information and analysis.

Devolution has, unsurprisingly, not featured large in this campaign (especially if you exclude unfunded promises). The Manifesto for the North, bringing together politicians and media, was an impressive but fleeting interjection in the campaign.

The harsh lesson of Brexit, and the years that have followed, is surely that many people feel disconnected from the political and economic frameworks that shape their lives.

Beyond city and regional devolution, the future of the union is in the balance if Brexit proceeds. An independent Scotland and a united Ireland are far from exaggerated possibilities.

Once this election is out of the way (and we collapse into Christmas) we might return to focus on the Mayoral election.

On occasion during this campaign, I have wondered how Andy Street and Liam Byrne look at themselves in the mirror after taking to social media to enthusiastically back their respective leaders. The leaders whose policies and behaviours are a country mile from their own centre ground positions.

That’s political reality in election times, I suppose. They may be looking forward to campaigning on their own ground if they face each other at next May’s election.

So, a dispiriting campaign closes and the polls open with one of the most significant choices ever faced by the electorate.

It might be tempting to hide under the duvet now or head to the pub on the way back from the office rather than visiting your local polling station.

But democracy is precious and hard won. It might be the ‘least worst election’, but it’s a day when electoral truths cannot be ignored.

Whether you do it enthusiastically or in despair, please do vote….. then adopt the brace position.

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