With a general election only 10 months away, attempts to set the battlegrounds are coming thick and fast from those with the most to gain from next May’s vote – the Westminster politicians themselves.
The Conservative Party is determined that the election debate focuses on the economy, an area polls continually show the Tories pull ahead on. Labour, up until now, has pushed a ‘cost of living crisis’ argument, one which will probably carry significant sway regardless of what economic indicators tell us.
And Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, has also tried to steer the pre-election debate away from image, promising he won’t seek to lead a campaign on low-substance photo opportunities alone, but on issues which matter to the electorate:
What do we really need in our leaders?
And the answer doesn’t actually start with the politicians and how we look.
That’s the thing about photo-op politics: it is about us and not about you.
Good for him. He’s right. Whether he’s saying it because he believes it – after all, he was doing photo opportunities without any apparent substance until quite recently – or because, as he admits, he can’t compete with husky-hugging David Cameron, only he really knows.
Re-establishing a connection between ordinary people and the political elite inside the Westminster bubble is not only a good thing, but essential to the future of the country. Time and again over a decade of political reporting, I heard politicians and their associates talking in exasperated tones about the public not getting the importance of being involved in politics.
Only after the expenses scandal did the penny seem to drop that it was their duty to reconnect with the public and that not being trusted by the public was not some sort of public service badge of honour to be ruefully smiled at, safe in the knowledge that if the public attempted to take an interest, the world would be different.
Miliband is right in pointing out the photo opportunity culture is a huge part of the problem. The obsession for the right public image was taken to extremes by Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell as they fought to make the Labour Party relevant again, and Westminster hasn’t looked back since then. ‘New’ Labour in the early days was defined by being as light on policies as possible to have as wide an appeal as possible, using photo opportunities and soundbites to dominate a political agenda while committing to very little.
That in turn made it possible for ‘New’ Labour to push through some of Blair’s more revolutionary ideas – raised tuition fees, NHS reforms, private sector involvement in education – with a veneer of not going back on previous pledges and promises, even if they were at odds with what Labour traditionally stood for. That approach, and the near-contempt for voters sensed from such behaviour, has dogged trust in politicians ever since.
What Miliband is essentially saying is that he doesn’t want to dominated the pre-election agenda with photocalls because he knows he can’t win that battle. His promise to lead an election campaign based on us, the voters, is only vaguely defined in his big speech – and that’s where regional media comes in.
The local elections demonstrated – on the websites I work with at least – that there is an appetite for local politics. When we open surveys on issues which involve politics, we see far greater responses than we used to. On Facebook, reaction to stories about local issues is much greater than in the past. There could be many reasons for this: General awareness ahead of an election, dis-satisfaction at current politicians or guilt at not actually voting prompting louder voices prompting participation in other aspects of political discussion are just some that come to mind.
However, politicians generally sought to fight the local election on national issues, as if deciding who made it into the Town Hall was of no consequence. That appears to be at odds with the audience engagement we now see in politics online, and
But if the general election really is to be about the issues which matter to voters, then regional media – hyperlocal, regional Press, local and regional TV and radio – have a duty to make sure the issues which matter to our readers/viewers/listeners are getting air time. This was a point Lucy West, editor at ITV Granada, made at the recent Revival of Local Journalism conference held by the BBC.
It’s become a stock-in-trade challenge for any journalist covering a ministerial visit to try and get a quote about a local matter, something unrelated to the pro-party aim of the visit. Spin doctors, in my opinion, still don’t understand the true value of the local Press. Some politicians do – Jack Straw, for example – but attempts to get a comment on an issue which matters often get, at best, a roll of the eyes from the so-called media experts and at worst, grave threats about lack of access in the future.
The challenge for local journalists 10 months out from a general election is to ensure the election – at least locally – is fought on issues which matter locally. The 2010 general election was dominated by the three national debates and those national debates are important for context, but shouldn’t be the be all and end all. Opinion polls and research panels can tell political parties an awful lot – but they can’t reach the volume of people local journalists can.
This isn’t to say that voters in any given area aren’t interested in the issues which have a national theme – the economy, the health service, schools, defence, Europe and so on – but the role of an MP is to represent the interests of his constituency in a national government. It’s not a giant leap to therefore ensure that local issues make up the local election debate, and therefore feed into the national debate.
Hearing a party leader pledging to eschew the modern way of running elections is good news, regardless of his motives. But it’s just the start – the real change can and should be driven by the local media.