Matthew Parris

We columnists have never been more useless

14 May 2015

1:00 PM

14 May 2015

1:00 PM

It takes some agility to shoot yourself in the foot and saw off the branch you’re sitting on, while hoisting yourself with your own petard, all at the same time; but that is what I shall now attempt. In this analysis of general election commentary I shall argue that over the last two months Britain has been all but choked by a surfeit of comment and analysis on the general election. Can any reader remember when there was an election that produced so much?

Or, in the end, produced it to so little useful purpose? If last Christmas Day one had fallen into a coma only to awake on 8 May, thus missing every word that has been spoken by broadcasters or written by columnists like me, if one had never read an opinion poll about voters’ preferences until the real poll on 7 May, if the machine-gun fire of mindless soundbites and the drone of endlessly repetitive party leaders’ speeches had never once this year impinged on one’s consciousness … would one be any less capable this weekend of forming an intelligent view of the result?

Some of us, like the Telegraph’s estimable James Kirkup, have apologised for wasting readers’ time; others (like me) continue to waste it; but surely nobody now seriously maintains that the unceasing stream of analysis masquerading as news that has filled airwaves, news pages and cyberspace this year, and the explosion of advance explanation of a result that in the event would not occur, left those who take a serious interest in politics any the wiser about what was going to happen last Thursday, or why.

It isn’t just that almost everyone including the pollsters got the result completely wrong. Heaven knows, picking over the entrails of that disaster has itself become a growth-industry of the ‘What went wrong?’, ‘Who’s to blame?’ and ‘Why?’ variety. No, it’s worse than that. Even if the pollsters’ science had accurately predicted the result, and the columnists’ art had supplied an interesting discussion of the reasons for it, there would still have been something sterile about the whole very 21st-century exercise.

Have we lost the confidence to think about the destinations of politics, retreating instead into a kind of displacement activity: talking about mere process?

Imagine yourself a 22nd-century historian. Suppose the subject of your study is the British general election of 2015. You decide to conduct an exhaustive review of published and broadcast discussion and commentary in the months leading up to that election. What especially will interest you? You will surely want to know where the Britain of that time thought it was going; where it wanted to go; what were the directions being proposed by the major parties; what were the real and perceived strengths and weaknesses of their manifestos; how the rival policies stacked up; and what was the public mood.

So you gather the data — the newspapers, the blogs, the polls, the broadcast assessments, the online traffic. The first thing you notice is the sheer volume: a multiple of any harvest you could gather from 20th-century elections, or even the elections of 2001, 2005 and 2010. Why, the polls seem to be almost hourly, the comment columns prodigious!

You’re encouraged. ‘I shall be able to form a most detailed picture of the mood and mindset of the time,’ you suppose, ‘and a clear idea of the competing strengths of the offers being made by party leaders.’

‘Here,’ you will think, ‘I shall learn where a nation thought it was going.’ You plough on in.

But all you find is vast quantities of the sort of commentary we associate with the Grand National. ‘True Blue’s just a nose ahead — but — oh! Red Devil’s taking an early lead… No — True Blue’s straining every sinew maintaining the pace… and — oh! What’s this? — Scotland The Brave’s obstructing Red Devil and True Blue inches into the lead.

‘Maybe they’ve picked the wrong jockey for Red Devil … — oh dear — Orange Book has dropped back badly at the fence and Purple Wizard’s hanging in there. But True Blue just can’t seem to pull a commanding lead — did his trainer choose the wrong feed? Oh dear — Green Natalie seems to have stumbled …’

And so on. Everything is discussed, often breathlessly. Everything is picked over, often tediously. And every few hours we freeze-frame for a pollster’s snapshot of the race so far, and an expert’s analysis of the horseflesh. It’s great for the punters and riveting for the bookies, but this is the politics of the Racing Post. The trainers — Crosby and Axelrod — have taken centre stage.

At least in racing you get interviews with the jockeys. But for the past two months in British politics the key figures — the senior ranks of the principal parties — have been under a collective vow of something not far from silence. They babble, of course, babble without end; they parrot their election strategists’ chosen phrases; but to the best of my recollection neither Ed Miliband nor David Cameron nor Nick Clegg said anything interesting, let alone significant, that wasn’t immediately seized on as a ‘gaffe’.

This was the election in which a Tory leader ate a hot dog with a knife and fork, and a Labour leader caused six entirely vacuous sentences to be chiselled on to an 8ft slab of limestone. This was the election in which, if we commentators had to endure as much as 36 hours without a new opinion poll that we now know to have been utterly useless anyway, our hands began to shake like an alcoholic’s after closing time.

So, super-trivial in substance yet super-abundant in output, super-cautious politicians and a supercharged media twisted and jived together towards an election outcome of which — now we know it — we can say only this: that we are about to get a government of whose actual intentions across whole swaths of policy we have not the least idea. Somehow the subject never came up.

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