CAN our representatives stop behaving like weasels as the general election approaches? Don’t count on it, says Bill Jamieson.
Good morning and a Happy and Prosperous New Year. To help ensure that it has a chance of being happy and prosperous it is right that on the first day of 2015, with a general election barely four months away, we should set out New Year resolutions for aspiring political candidates. This is especially important as this is likely to be the most ferociously contested election for decades. Minority parties are set to make a formidable impact – and the election is likely to end in a fraught hung parliament. A second election may not be far off. Such a prospect would exhaust the tolerance of many voters.
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So here are ten resolutions that all contestants should strive to honour.
1. Answer the question. Voters despise politicians who don’t. Give a clear answer, like “yes” or “no”. Better still, admit to “don’t know”. Voters will warm to honesty and candour.
2. On TV and radio panel discussions, don’t all talk at once or over each other. Voters quickly switch off.
3. Avoid contrived “photo opportunities” or pretending that such events are a “major policy statement” or a “press conference”. There are simple rules. Don’t inspect a haggis factory if you’re a vegetarian. Don’t unveil a new rural bus service arriving in a 4x4. Avoid being photographed at food banks if you are clinically obese.
4. Do not get into a bidding war on public spending. Everyone loses. It is not just undignified. It lacks all credibility. Don’t boast about the money a new initiative or service will cost; set out how it would work, the specific improvement it would deliver, and who benefits.
5. Avoid the word “austerity”. This is not Greece. We have tough decisions to make, but it is not “austerity”. To invoke the word is to demean what our parents and grandparents endured in the post-war period.
6. If determined to make a new spending commitment, spell out exactly how much it will cost, where the money will come from (cuts in other departments, higher taxes or more borrowing). Spare us the hackneyed resort to “efficiency savings”.
7. Don’t play politics with the NHS. Scare stories about hospital closures, patients abandoned in hospital corridors, casualty wards without crutches, ambulances without wheels, etc should be avoided. This is the cheapest and nastiest politics of all.
8. Do not pander to tribalism in radio and TV audiences. Never seek cheap applause by demonising people on the basis of class, background, ethnic origin, gender, lifestyle or religious belief. This is dog-whistle politics at its lowest.
9. Avoid clichés and corporate speak. The most frequent offenders are: any metaphor based on the words “packages” and “delivery”. Politics is more than ParcelForce. Other well-worn examples include: “hard-working families” (ugh); “the fact of the matter is”; “it’s going to take time”; “a comprehensive raft of measures”; “ground-breaking technology” (two bits of coconut connected by a string); “let me be absolutely open and honest” (often a cue for exactly the opposite); “metropolitan elite”; “people on the doorstep” and “the Westminster bubble” – clearly not big enough as they would not all be competing to join it. The excellent Polifiller.com website has several hundred annoying and empty phrases that politicians should check before appearing on Question Time.
10. Do not vilify, abuse or denounce your opponents in personal terms. You may need them as a coalition partners on 8 May. And always: accept victory with humility; be gracious in defeat.
However, the problem is not simply one of good intentions. It is that even the shortest list of New Year resolutions rarely survives the first month. So how will our politicians really behave? Here are ten predictions for 2015:
1. Candidates will as often as possible avoid, prevaricate and obscure all questions put to them.
2. Candidates will talk across each other and resort to shouting when asked to be quiet.
3. They will insist on the last word right up until fighting is about to break out.
4. They will insist that they have answers to all questions and they will minimise or ignore the practical difficulties of policies.
5. They will descend into jargon (see list above). And they will quote well-worn and often dated statistics.
6. They will resort to NHS scare stories, succumb to a war over unrealistic targets and generally reduce all political problems to that of a dysfunctional hospital.
7. They will make uncosted promises impossible to fulfil and avoid, wherever possible, references to deficit, debt and debt interest.
8. They will resort to sloganeering on radio and TV programmes
9. They will win with arrogant triumphalism and cry “foul” in defeat.
10. They will make compromise all the more difficult on 8 May.
Does bad behaviour matter? Scotland’s independence referendum was one of the most divisive political events in decades. TV debates often turned into shouting matches, panel discussions became inaudible, tribal politics prevailed while on “social networking sites” (sic) the level of vilification drew widespread condemnation.
Yet despite all this – perhaps because of it – the voter turnout of 84.6 per cent was the highest recorded for an election or referendum in the UK since the start of universal suffrage. It’s tempting to conclude that while we may not care for ill-mannered shouting matches, we are not as turned off by it as some commentary might suggest. We are in an era in which tribal and national loyalties are much more pronounced than before. People always want their viewpoints heard, but today, when deference has disappeared and there is a high level of distrust about traditional politics, large numbers are engaged and passions aroused. The outcome is more raucous and belligerent.
However, we should not gloss over the passion of previous contests. The most recent UK election with a comparable turnout was in 1950, when 83.9 per cent voted on the radical years of the post-war Attlee administration. Labour was re-elected with a majority of just five seats and a further election was held late the following year, the Conservatives led by Winston Churchill securing a precarious majority of 17.
Today the two (or three) party dominance is under challenge – and on fundamental issues such as the constitution of the UK and whether the UK should remain in the European Union. “Politics” does not come much more elemental than in 2015. But precisely because of that, decent behaviour and respect for those with whom we disagree will be all the more necessary for our democratic survival.
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