Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's politicians are more remote than ever... and I blame the Americans

Techniques like focus groups and rapid rebuttal have led to a disconnect between electors and elected, says Alex Kane

Robert McKenzie with his Swingometer during the elctions in the 1970s
Robert McKenzie with his Swingometer during the elctions in the 1970s

My first vote was cast on February 28, 1974 - and there could hardly have been a more exciting time to cast it. Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath had called a general election to determine the question: "Who governs Britain?" Not you was the answer he got.

In Northern Ireland the UUP, DUP and Vanguard had created the United Ulster Unionist Council and, on the back of the slogan "Dublin Is Just A Sunningdale Away", campaigned to bring down Brian Faulkner and the power-sharing Assembly. They succeeded. It was a difficult first election for me, because I actually supported Faulkner.

And, because it was my first election, it was also the first time I sat up all night to watch the results roll in. I remember the wonderful Robert McKenzie with his Swingometer - it actually looked as though it had been built in the Blue Peter studio - explaining national swing and the implications for the make-up of the next parliament. His enthusiasm was mesmerising.

Apart from that, it was all rather pedestrian and sedate (although the result was actually a hung parliament). And that's because elections themselves still tended to be rather dull and sedate; 1974 was the end of that era. By 1979 - when Margaret Thatcher was first elected - everything was changing. It was the beginning of 24-hour news, when camera crews and journalists followed every step and campaign stop of the election, and candidates and leaders allowed themselves to be viewed in a more informal light.

Journalists were encouraged to show the slightly quirkier side of campaigning and there was a much more relaxed approach to vox pop interviews with focus groups and "ordinary" voters. The year 1959 was the first "television election", in the sense that we now understand it, but by 1979 the deference to politicians had gone altogether.

Elections were about viewing figures for the BBC and ITV (and that's even more so today, when there are so many more news channels), which meant they were also about "entertaining" the viewers.

But television - and its importance to political parties - has also changed the nature of the relationship between those parties and the voters they're chasing. For most people, television is the first point of contact with politics and elections.

In 1950, for example, just over 50% of the electorate claimed to have been canvassed at home by a political party. That figure has fallen to around 15%. In 1951, 30% said that they had attended a public meeting (hustings or party political event). That figure has fallen to just 2%.

There's also evidence to suggest that television has had an impact on party identification, partly because the constant exposure to politicians and the increasingly tough line taken by interviewers has shifted the reasonably benign/slightly deferential view that the general public used to have of them.

In 1964 a survey found that 90% of the sample admitted to a party identification and 88% of them said that they felt "strongly" or "fairly strongly" Conservative, Labour or Liberal. That figure is now down to 20%.

Turnout has also gone down from a 75% average to the low-60s, with some studies suggesting that a less-committed or alienated electorate may be more prone to sudden changes of mood.

The influence of television is beginning to lessen with the growth of social media, and the psephologist David Butler has noted: "The swiftly growing impact of Twitter and Facebook has still to be assessed. Amateur blogging may now be more influential than official literature. Parties have, with varying success, tried to improve their campaign performance by importing expertise in management, advertising and public relations from America and Australia. New words have become established in the electoral vocabulary: photo-opportunity, soundbite, battle-bus, spin doctor, focus group, rapid rebuttal - and many others."

Ironically, the most noticeable impact of social media, television, rolling news et al is that increasing numbers of people just don't trust politicians of any kind. And even when they do trust them, it's usually just one party or person they trust.

The deference of the early-1950s has been replaced with something approaching detestation, which is very bad for politics generally and particularly bad for the broad public support any government requires to underpin its authority.

And many television/radio journalists seem to think that their sole task - in the name of entertaining the viewer and bolstering the audience - is to roast or humiliate their political interviewee.

All of which means that election campaigns are very different in tone and nature to what they were when I first voted.

The fault, if that is the right word to use, can be traced to the "Americanisation" of election campaigns over the past 40 years.

The author Pippa Norris has summed up four major changes which have crossed the Atlantic: "The 'personalisation' of politics, as leaders and candidates rise in importance; the 'scientificisation' of campaigning, as technical experts like opinion pollsters, come to take decisions formerly exercised by party officials; the detachment of parties from citizens, as politicians come to be increasingly reliant upon opinion polls rather than direct contact with grassroots activists and voters; and the development of more autonomous structures of communications, as the modern news media are more determined to pursue their own interests, rather than to serve the needs of politicians."

Even though how elections are fought and reported has changed almost beyond recognition since 1974, it still strikes me that the gap between the political parties and the electorate has grown rather than narrowed.

Indeed, with the exception of a few weeks on the campaign trail (and even then more doors are knocked rather than answered and the candidate sees only a very small percentage of potential voters), and with the relatively small number of "real" people that a politician will see in his constituency surgery, the fact of the matter is that there is very little interface between voters and politicians. Most of them don't even do public meetings anymore.

Local constituency surveys indicate that around 70% of constituents cannot name their MP - although 45% are fairly confident of the party.

This may seem a radical thing to suggest, but I think politicians need regular contact with voters. It keeps them grounded. It takes them out of the sort of "bubble" that envelops them at Westminster, or Stormont for that matter. It allows them to present an alternative narrative to the constant negativity they complain about from the media.

The present gap between voter and political representative is doing huge damage to the most important relationship in a democratic society. In so doing, it is also doing huge damage to democracy itself.

Democracy is built on people, not just on opinion polls, focus groups, personality politics and cold-calling. We, the people, need to guard against being taken for granted by political machines.

Belfast Telegraph

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