It’s not by chance that I have borrowed the title of this blog post from Peter Pomerantsev’s book about communication techniques in Putin’s Russia. Garry Kasparov’s observation – that the point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda, but to exhaust your critical thinking and to annihilate truth – would be another adequate starting point for thinking about this election in the UK. Note that this is not saying there is Russian influence on the British election, but more that the style in which the election is being run seems to bear a lot of hallmarks of a democracy going wrong.
I write this post today as it has just been confirmed that Johnson will not be interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC during this election. “The format is broken,” apparently. So broken in fact… that the Tory Party gave the Neil-Corbyn interview pride of place on its own Facebook page. Fine when Corbyn gets blasted. Avoid when Johnson is in danger of the same happening to him. And then there is the central trust point – the leaders of the other parties are only going to have agreed to an interview with Neil in the knowledge that Johnson would face that too. And if you doubt the impact of these interviews, this was the headline in the Mail the day after Corbyn’s grilling. Yes, the Neil monologue inviting Johnson to still come and be interviewed is good, but is that going to drive tomorrow’s news agenda? I doubt it.
Hot on the heels of that comes a further sorry episode – Channel 4 News thought Johnson talked of “people of colour” in a speech earlier on today, while the BBC’s audio is much clearer and he says “people of talent”. Both clips can be compared here. This strikes me simply as a genuine error – Channel 4’s audio is of poor quality and the BBC’s much better – and C4 have apologised. The Tories instead – with words befitting of Viktor Orbán – double down on the critique of Channel 4, accusing the broadcaster of “inventing the most damaging things possible to further their campaign against Brexit“. No, they made an error, for which they apologised. If anyone is making an untrue allegation it’s the Conservative Party here. And then partisans on both sides jump on the bandwagon, using whichever version they see fit to confirm their prejudices.
The point in all of this, it seems, is that we are each confecting our own reality in this election, to an extent probably not seen in elections in the UK before. The way we consume news about the election, and the very way that news is made, is central to that. Jim Waterson’s report that records voters’ use of their mobiles is probably the best exposé of this I have read – especially the part where perceived bias of the BBC is important for people who themselves actually do not consume any of the news that the public broadcaster even produces. Data from Who Targets Me about how digital political ads differ across the country underlines the differing realities thesis still further.
Add onto all of that the scarcely plausible promises of the two main parties. “Get Brexit Done” from the Tories is the least plausible of all – because even if they win and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passes the Commons by 31st January, all that then happens is everyone moves to the next stage – the future relationship. Brexit can’t be “done” for a decade. Plus anything else the Tories promise on any other policy area (from the economy to health to transport) is intrinsically connected to how much the economy tanks (or not) because of Brexit. So promise the world and the NHS 40 new hospitals knowing even if you can’t deliver them, then someone else will be to blame next time.
On the other side the Labour Party can promise all sorts of baubles because it knows, at heart, that it is not going to be in a position to implement any of them in the short term anyway – as their initial governing headache will be to renegotiate something with the EU (or not) and then organise a second referendum.
Brexit is both all and nothing in this election – it makes talk of anything else so fuzzy, so imponderable, and so vague, but at the same time neither Johnson nor Corbyn actually want to talk about the specifics of their respective Brexit policies either. Johnson daren’t be concrete as his Brexit Deal is not actually very good (and, for him, the least said about Northern Ireland the better), and then if there is any substance to the government’s Brexit plans, it is all mysteriously the fault of a junior official doing an appraisal. Meanwhile Corbyn is so stubborn he cannot jettison his historic euroscepticism and vaguely justifies Labour’s neutral stance by not wanting to cause upset in leave-leaning Labour-voting areas.
Which brings us then back around, full circle, to Andrew Neil, and Johnson refusing to be interviewed by him.
Schumpeter wrote a classic definition of a functional party political system (written almost 80 years ago in this):
Parties present programmes
Voters make an informed choice between competing parties
The successful party puts its programme into practice
The governing party judged on its successes at the next election
This election feels a good way away from that.
Brexit has turned the manifestoes to mush. With even the BBC failing to hold the leaders to account, it is hard for voters to make what I would describe as a fairly informed choice between the parties, and the study on how we all consume news so very differently on our mobiles cited above emphasises that still further. The Tories have been in power for 9 years, but the whole campaign is being run on the idea that what has happened since 2010 was essentially not the Tories’ fault. Plus the very rationale for the election – that it was a Remainer parliament blocking everything – does not even stand up to scrutiny as the Commons passed the 2nd Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by 329 to 299 votes. But inconvenient facts like that do not matter, and all of this will be rinsed and repeated the next time the Tories think they need to increase their grip on power in a further election.
What sort of country does the UK want to be? How does it want to treat the poorest and weakest members of its society? How does it cope with the urgent crisis of our times, climate change? What price, if any, is worth paying to do Brexit? And what does a viable Brexit plan – beyond the Withdrawal Agreement, even look like? And how does the country want to find collective ways to even understand, examine and debate this multitude of interlinked challenges?
A country with an election campaign in which it feels like nothing is true, and politicians say anything is possible, is not well placed to come up with good answers to those questions.