Last night Question Time dissolved its usual audience of flustered halfwits and elected another to give Cameron, Miliband and Clegg a proper grilling.
As the Guardian’s Owen Jones tweeted, this was set up to make the politicians “fear the people”. For what felt like the first time in the election the slick, tinted-windowed campaign machines were ground to a halt.
Cameron, so used to trotting out his campaign lines, was clearly flustered to have an unimpressed questioner shoot down his forced defence of the NHS – “well you’re wrong”. Miliband gifted the crowd a visual metaphor with his slippery exit – a poor man’s Madonna moment choreographed for viral Vining. And Clegg, for all his sympathetic charm, did no better than the other guys at convincing the audience why they should trust political promises.
In an election campaign that has been dominated from the start by corporate PR, the issue of trust has been at loggerheads with a fierce controlling of the message. In elections past, we had prime ministers travelling the country with their soapboxes; their off-the-cuff remarks were interrogated and the media relished the confrontation of the high and mighty with hecklers and egg-throwers.
It is understandable why politicians are queasy about the risks involved in this level of unscripted immersion. Armed with Twitter and its visual extension Periscope, we are, in their eyes, a nation of citizen journalists lying in wait to capture every political pratfall. But the degree to which this campaign has been pre-briefed drowns out all potential for real engagement. Press teams form iron domes around their leaders – Marina Hyde sketches a Cameron anxious to avoid all possible eye contact and Miliband's minders ">fight off any ">unvetted"> attention.
In the main the media has gone along with the stage-management. The press have boarded the battle buses and – like the journalists who, after dutifully scribbling down the soundbites, were unceremoniously abandoned in on a remote corner of the Welsh valley – been taken for a ride. The research from Cardiff University that broadcast coverage of the election has been weighted towards politicians attacking their opponents rather than discussing their own party’s policies shows how the media has been overly acquiescent to the campaign agendas.
Instilling trust in the politics was never part of the campaign plans for either of the main parties. Tory campaign strategist Lynton Crosby’s battle bus, which was meant to glide to victory on the economic route, turns out to have limited mileage. Cameron himself is liked more than trusted. His over-manicured style, from the shirt sleeves to the way he exits on-camera interviews the instant they’re over to imply decisiveness, has failed to carry the message beyond the Tory fold. His refusal to debate Miliband has blotted his plain talking credentials.
Whatever you think of the Labour leader’s reaching out to Russell Brand, it is consistent with his stance against Cameron’s rejection of open discussion and a noble effort to reach out to younger voters. The meeting was also part of an effort to boost Miliband’s cool factor – and who saw Milifandom coming? Labour’s problem is (to the surprise of the Ed doubters) more structural than personal – it’s lacked a message that resonates and has struggled to reverse the narrative that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy.
Has trust ever been on the agenda for general elections? Perhaps not; but the insurgency of the smaller parties, stimulated by the post-election uncertainty, has fed the narrative that the way mainstream politics is structured fuels voter alienation. Whether or not the Greens and Ukip do well, they have served the function of reminding the voter of the slim pickings of Westminster democracy.
The certain success of the SNP in Scotland, on the other hand, brings to the fore the existence of an identity politics where more is at stake than variations on deficit reduction. It should not be left to Ukip to fill this gap; rather, we need politicians to speak off-message and battle their fears. If this fails, politicians will have more to fear the next time they venture near a Question Time audience.