Turn On, or Turn Off?

ALICE THWAITE examines the effect of the televised debates on the impending election.

conservative david cameron debate democracy gordon brown labour lib dems May 6 Nick Clegg politics

Oh God, I’m writing a political article. After weeks of shunning the discussions that everyone seems to be having, and firmly sitting on the fence about the entire thing, I am going to attempt to air my views on what the media are doing to politics. 

I often find that politics make normally sane people very aggressive. But now I’m getting dragged in. And so is the rest of the student body. Recent polls show that winning the student vote could mean winning the election. Preliminary figures predict that 75% of students will vote on 6th May, compared to a mere third five years ago. 

As a student, I obviously think that it’s great that more of us are being politically active. However, I am worried about the reasons behind more of us being interested in the election this year, and the way that politicians will adapt to accommodate the change that is being seen in politics. Namely, the live, televised debates.

Debating is obviously not a new thing in politics. It’s basically the foundation of political decision-making: MPs sit in the House of Commons and berate each other in an attempt to embarrass the opposing side (definition of Commons life given to me by Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells). However, it has not largely been the case that MPs are expected to debate in front of such a large audience as being seen today. In the 1950s, wannabe politicians hosted events where the candidate would present their policies directly to the constituency, and the ordinary citizen would challenge and heckle their views. Now, however, we have to be content to watch only three men challenge each other’s opinions whilst we sit and watch, clicking a computer screen if we like what they are saying.

Now, I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for two reasons, which relate to my own experience of arguments. In my philosophy degree, I’m forced to sit and read lengthy articles surrounding very controversial topics. Reading conclusions is not sufficient: the entire argument needs to be read. Being told what the author thought in a summarised paragraph in a televised debate would never suffice, and I would inevitably click the ‘dislike’ button on Facebook’s Democracy UK

However, Brown, Clegg and Cameron are each required to give a summary of their views in an abrupt manner and, following this, are challenged on their policies without real scrutiny of other issues surrounding the debate. Rarely is an examination of the causes of their views given, if it is not preceded by ‘when I was in a Yorkshire mental asylum’ or similar. From this, the audience presses ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ without a real understanding of the full picture. The television debates promote the electorate to have an opinion without real understanding of the topics at hand.

I can see that this has always been done, to a certain extent. But it is now that the leaders of all the parties are being encouraged more than before to simply say what they think we want to hear. I don’t want to hear what I would like to hear! I’m well aware that what I would like to hear is that tuition fees will be scrapped, cancer will be cured and all those wearing a poncho outside of ‘Pocahontas’ themed parties will be shot. And I’m sure that if I mentioned all those things in a live election debate, the polls would be wildly in my favour. But, this is simply not practical. Encouraging politicians to lie in order to get into office can only result in parties going back on their manifesto promises.

I’m aware that this is turning into a rant similar to the one I had when Portsmouth were relegated, so I’ll be brief. It would seem that, instead of a stab at a better democracy, the television debates just offer greater access to democracy, with only a few key players able to promote their views. Why should only Clegg, Brown and Cameron have the opportunity to slag each other off? Why should only one political analyser be able to tell me what the whole country is thinking? Why don’t I have real access to the politicians in a way that I did in the 1950s? I feel like I’m watching democracy at work instead of actually partaking in it.

So yes: I’m very pleased that more people feel compelled to vote in this election, but I’m also worried that it will encourage politicians to lie more in the future, whilst giving the electorate the illusion of democracy.  But, I suppose wanting a perfect democracy is like wanting no taxes with high public spending: having my cake and eating it.