The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News this morning outlined plans for a series of three televised debates between the political party leaders during next year’s General Election campaign. As I write, it’s unclear whether the suggested formats will be acceptable to those invited, and those excluded (the Greens and the Nationalists) from the plans are bound to be unhappy. Much of the difficulty in determining the format stems from the ever rising profile of UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage, who the broadcasters know is the only mainstream politician other than London Mayor Boris Johnson likely nowadays to draw a really big TV audience for such programming.
Mr Farage is popular because he is a populist and conveys an image of having lived a bit that many people clearly relate to. There was a time when more politicians came across this way. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the October 1974 General Election and the BBC Parliament Channel re-broadcast the accompanying results programme. I was a couple of months short of my 17th birthday at the time but remember watching the journalists quizzing varied pollsters, pundits and politicians as they pondered on what it all meant for the parties.
Looking back, most of those involved 40 years ago are now sadly departed, whether to heaven, hell or (God forbid) some kind of endless purgatory for politicos nobody knows. What struck me most, however, was the contrast between politician and pundit. All of the former (at least in the hour or so I watched the re-broadcast) were of an age to have lived through the Second World War, in most cases as adults. Not only were they wrapped in the aura of experience, their manner and accents reflected the class mix of the vox pop which also punctuated the programme. The pundits, generally somewhat younger, appeared trendier, more sophisticated and socially a bit removed from the general populous, often aided by the occasional drag on a cigarette, the latter anathema by today’s values but then a cool counterpoint to the common person style of Prime Minister Harold Wilson with his pipe and slight northern drawl.
Well over a generation on, and the distinction between politician and pundit has all but disappeared. Most look and sound the same and tend to have had similar education and experience. They are not so much a political establishment as a political class that transcends the ideological views and party labels they display. Moreover, in the era of multiple think tanks, unelected quangos and digital commentators the members of the political class are increasingly interchangeable, today’s pundit or quangocrat becoming tomorrow’s politician and vice versa. Rightly or wrongly, to the everyday Janet or John outside this class all that appears to matter at any particular time is whose in and whose out rather than the underlying state of the nation. The prospect of continued coalition government further exacerbates this feeling, offering the nauseating sight of parties condemning each other’s policies while happy to get into bed together so as to grab a slice of ministerial power.
Continuation of this situation could itself be said to amount to a form of political purgatory for the living, with endless hand wringing about ‘connecting with the people’ combined with perpetual frustration that nothing will ever change. The only means of escape is to replace the political career as we have come to know it with an ethos of political service: opportunity to participate in democratic politics extended through increased devolution to a wider citizenry, combined with greater ongoing influence over the activities of all those – political bodies, public agencies and corporations – who affect our lives.
I don’t yet know enough about Mr Farage to determine whether he is a genuine outsider seeking to break the prevailing mould or a canny insider who thinks his best chance of rising within the ranks of the political class and advancing his own ideological beliefs is to exploit disenchantment with the economic and social consequences of its stultifying grip on power. Whatever the configuration of public debate ahead of the General Election this is the fundamental question he and his party need to answer. As for the other parties, they must demonstrate that political change means more than simply rearranging the Whitehall furniture.