Roll on 12 June! We won’t see the politicians for another five years. The usual election issues of poverty, unemployment and crime won’t disappear so easily though. For the moment we’re going to hear a lot more from the politicians. They will be dumping their leaflets—with nice pictures of them and their families on the front and damn all else inside—on our doorsteps. They’ll be stopping us in the street to shake our hand and blame the weather on their opponents. And they’ll be on the TV (“And I think I can safely say that I speak for the whole of this great nation of ours when I say blah blah blah”).
Some lucky voters are blessed with the attention of the politicians all year round. During the cold spell at the start of this year, Breakfast TV just happened to have a camera crew crammed into some OAP’s kitchen when who should pop in for a friendly chat but Neil Kinnock and Michael Meacher, the Shadow Minister for Health! But they weren’t there for some cheap publicity shot and some political point-scoring. No, they’d brought some draught excluders with them, which they proceeded to nail up for the benefit of the lucky OAP. As she was getting it done for free, the old lady was prepared to put up with all the guff for the cameras about Labour’s plans for rate reform that the Labour leader just happened to have prepared. That’s the sort of thing Neil Kinnock means when he, “speaks for the whole of the British people about the indignity of old age blah blah blah”.
Obviously, the best place to live in Britain is right next to Shepherds Bush or TV-am, if you are prepared to open your door to any political conman with a nice smile and a camera crew, some new carpets for you and some old policies for the viewer.
Regardless of the gimmicks, or even the policies of the parties, there is one thing that all the party leaders are trying to get over, and that is unity. Unity within their party and, more importantly, unity under the leader. That, after all, is what a leader is there for—to rule, to dominate. We can laugh at them and their antics but support for a leader, means someone else taking decisions for you. Leaders and democracy do not mix. As the election looms and the ranks close, this becomes all the clearer. The Alliance when they disagree, have a split for a few weeks until it is glossed over; the Labour Party have a few expulsions behind closed doors; and the Tories? Well the Tories don’t look like they need to worry too much on that count. The Scottish Tory Party Conference recently spent three days in what they call “debate”. Of the 294 resolutions put to the conference only one was in any way critical of the government. The whole charade was stage-managed as the first unofficial party political broadcast of the election campaign.
It’s just a taste of things to come. Every night we’ll get the gimmicks—here’s the party leader shaking hands, here’s the party leader out shopping, here’s the party leader driving a tank. And while wars and world hunger get relegated to the last item on the news, we’ll see the party leader being cheerful, the party leader being caring, the party leader being defiant.
It’s not just confined to the news programmes either—David Steel appeared on Game For A Laugh dressed as a policeman and Thatcher had a go at playing Prime Minister in a sketch from Yes Minister.
Even Saturday mornings aren’t free from the vote-catchers—the children’s programme Saturday Superstore recently had each of the party leaders on in turn. Each party’s image makers had obviously done their market research—here’s the party leader with no jacket, no tie, but a trendy cardigan. “I think I can safely say that I speak for the whole of this great nation of ours when I say my favourite disco record of the moment is blah blah blah”. OK, they’re not kissing babies, but molesting children’s minds was what it amounted to.
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised at a quick change of clothes to suit a different audience (after all, policies are jettisoned just as quickly) but the victorious SDP candidate in the Greenwich bye-election, in February of this year, has turned it into a fine art. Part of her campaign strategy that helped the SDP win Greenwich and break the mould for the seventeenth time, involved wearing “cheerful jumpers and sensible dresses” while canvassing on council estates and “smart sludge-coloured two-piece suits” for Tory areas (Guardian, 12 February 1987).
In stark contrast to such patronising tactics that are part and parcel of the politics of leadership, the Socialist Party has no leaders, no secret committees and no advertising agency. We’ve also got damn few candidates—at this election anyway. We won’t be jumping in and out of OAP’s homes for the benefit of the viewer. Nor will we be jumping in and out of sensible dresses and sludge-coloured suits for the benefit of the voter. Let’s not look to leaders to do our thinking for us, at this election or at any time.