Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The wrong-side-of-the-rainbow election


High up in Hampstead live the really rich characters, and that’s where you’ll see most Labour posters. The People’s Soviets of Parliament Hill, and Nassington and Tanza Roads (average house price, £2,000,000) are militant for Gordon.
This is a phenomenon which could bear a bit of deconstruction, some time. As might the fact that The Guardian, journal of the left-leaning radical, is the newspaper of choice for lone diners in restaurants serving sushi, the national cuisine of the profoundly conservative Japanese.
Anyway, drop down a few contours from Hampstead (as house prices also drop, by more than a half) to Parks Tufnell and Dartmouth, and the Lib Dems predominate. Descend still further, among the bedsits, scruffy flats and sub-prime territory surrounding Kentish Town and Camden, and you’ll see, it’s true, a meagre scattering of Labour red and yellow, but almost all the windows are blank.
Conservative posters? I’ve spotted about three (one in Pang’s Kitchen, Kentish Town). But this may be psephologically misleading, since in London NW5, if not NW3 (Hampstead), a window favouring the Tories is likely to be sought out and visited after closing-time by a flying brick.
Usually I get a feeling for the result from the pattern of these favours, but not this time. The easiest to predict was in 1974, when I was living in South East Cornwall. While commentators were confidently asserting the return of Ted Heath’s Tory government, every time a phalanx of placards appeared in a field, or a series of placards on sticks along a hedgerow, advertising our local Conservative M.P., the affable Bob Hicks, they got torn down overnight.
The election produced a hung parliament, and after brief uncertainty, Harold Wilson entered Number 10 for Labour. Actually I was among those doing the tearing down (in what was an entirely uncoordinated campaign conducted by dissidents who had no knowledge of each other), so I think you can deduce which way my sympathies lay. That time we were looking over the rainbow. This time we all know we’re on the wrong side of it.
Part of the problem predicting this year’s campaign maybe because during the leader’s debates it became what’s been widely called “The X-Factor” election.
Now, as you know, “The X-Factor” is our modern variant of “Opportunity Knocks”. But the difference is this. Where “Opportunity Knocks” simply searched for naturally talented individuals, “The X-Factor” (like it’s BBC coeval, “Over the Rainbow”) riffs off one of the more recent capitalist scams, which is that anybody who wants to be somebody can only be somebody by being somebody else, viz, a celebrity, dead or alive, whose demeanour, attire, hairstyle, lifestyle, accoutrements, song or act they have to purchase, ape and retail.
This makes it easy for the consumer to identify with and buy into unknown source (contestant) through its resonance with well-known target (celebrity) and has the added benefit of investing the source (contestant) with that other capitalist desideratum: rapid obsolescence.
So in an “X-Factor” election, three contestants step up to the rostrum to pose as somebody they’re not, selling a familiar persona which will theoretically resonate with the audience. “Tonight, Alastair/Adam/David, I’m going to be Mr Fixit, Hod-Carrying Repairman of our Broken Society /Mr Freshface-Plague-on-Both-their-Houses /Parson Thunder, Only-Protector of your Welfare and Work.”
Well hoopla, says you. Wintle’s woken up at last to the fact that politicians are actors. Okay – but in the past there were also the daily leaders’ Press Conferences, at which a mob of aggressive journos interrogated furiously from all directions, trying to tear off the actors’ masks and expose the true nature of the characters underneath.
As they succumbed to television’s clamour for TV debates, the leaders realised they could ditch the Press conferences. So what we’ve had this year has been almost all mask.
We also endured a few one-on-one interviews, most notably Paxman’s. “Jeremy, Jeremy, if I may just, Jeremy, please, Jeremy, let me make my poi.. but Jeremy, no...”
In our post-modern word, the visual always signifies more than the verbal. Paxman and leader sat mesmerizingly alone in the middle of a vast, overlit, empty office space. Every day in London, going hither and yon, I pass on the bus these vast, empty office blocks, built in greedy expectation during the boom, now standing empty in the bust, presumably racking up huge debts for the developers.
In debates and interviews, three words kept going round like a chorus:
“Change.” Meant to be attractive, but contemplated soberly sounds more like an invitation to a good time in a darkened alley.
“Progressive.” Hmm. By some official measures, the UK is now more unequal than at any time since before the second world war.
“Modernisation.” How exactly do you modernise in a post-modern world? In the modern world, modernisation meant things like sanitation, slum clearance, universal suffrage, state education, a health service free from cradle to grave...
And in the post-modern world? New improved surveillance? An end to old-style, fuddy-duddy presumptions of innocence until guilt is proved? Imprisonment without trial in the interests of national security? “Efficiency savings” – a.k.a. automation, offshoring and redundancy?
“One cannot,” says the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson; hang on, I’ll go back to ensure you pick up the double negative: “One cannot, not periodise.”
Just so. We had the Thatcher period, with added Major, during which that period’s contradictions erupted and it imploded. And then we had the Blair period, with added Brown, during which ditto, and, presumably, ditto.
What happens next, I wonder? See you on Friday.

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