Mal Fletcher
Election By TV: Where's The Conviction?

The last of the political debates is done and dusted. The candidates have made their final pitches. The public will shortly register their votes – assuming, that is, they haven’t already seen too much politics and simply tune out on election-day.

Some polls suggest Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg came out neck-and-neck, with both ahead of Mr Brown by a long way.

Watching as I was in a travel-induced haze, having just stepped off a plane, I found Cameron the least tiresome and perhaps the clearest, though he has a habit of letting his impatience with others show a little too much. In him, some will see sincerity, others slickness.

Clegg once again showed his smooth presentation skills, but his ‘old parties’ and ‘old politics’ jibes are past their use-by dates. He is, after all, as much a political animal as the others and his party has its roots in a long Parliamentary history. His complaints about ‘political point-scoring’ were also silly. Point-scoring is, of course, what TV debates are all about.

Gordon Brown tried hard to claw some semblance of authority back after his ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe the day before the debate. Nothing is sadder, though, than to watch someone pitch for a job when their eyes seem to be saying, ‘I’ve lost this, haven’t I?’

It’s all starting to sound a bit like Britain’s Got Talent on finals night, and some people fear that we’ve crossed some kind of Rubicon; that we’re now doomed to electing leaders who perform best on camera. The Times this morning even had David Dimbleby as a clear winner – and as far as I’m aware he’s not actually running for anything.

Most thinking people are well aware of the dangers of judging leadership skills on the basis of a few 90 minute TV appearances. After all, most of the real work of government is done light years away from the smoke and mirrors of TV studios. It’s done in the grind of private discussions, cabinet and committee meetings, international conferences and Parliamentary sessions. Granted, some of the workings of Parliament are televised, but few people watch them – and even fewer watch the pundit-fests that follow, which try to explain what Parliament has been doing.

Yet, for those of us who’d like something more to go on than TV debates, we’ve not really being offered much. From beginning to end, this election campaign has been more carefully stage-managed for television coverage than any other in British history. In some instances, the whole thing has been taken to almost farcical lengths.

We were treated this week, for example, to the cringe-inducing spectacle of a sitting Prime Minister spending an hour apologising to a member of the public he’d just insulted on national TV. He not only spent an hour saying sorry, he stopped his entire campaign in its tracks to do it. This is down purely to the fact that he’d made his blunder while being filmed for television. Had the insult been caught by a newspaper reporter and not a live microphone with TV cameras nearby, we wouldn’t have heard much more about it. It may have found its way onto a front page or two, but you can’t repeat a front page ad nauseam as you can with a TV report.

The incident showed both the strengths and weaknesses of TV when it comes to elections. Television allows us to see unguarded moments which may reveal something about how a leader handles pressure – in Mr Brown’s case, apparently, that’s not very well.But TV cameras and the short, crafted reports we see on television newscasts, also divert candidates from more important things they could be doing and saying.

In the midst of the buzz about ‘historic television debates’, the three major party leaders have assiduously avoided letting us get behind the crafted sound bites to discover the big-picture guiding principles on which their policies are founded. Yes, we’ve had plenty of what we might call ‘soft values’ talk – ‘I believe in family’, ‘I think we need more fairness’ and so on – but very little of substance about worldview.

The parties simply have not come to grips with the fact that, in the age of post-ideology politics, we are looking for something more than personality to take its place. The age of ideological politics is definitely over. People no longer want buy into dogmatic, proscribed systems for thought which produce rigid party-line responses on every conceivable issue. Yet the voting public would like to hear more about the worldview of each candidate.

I don’t use that word in the sense of a global perspective or an understanding of international geopolitics. I use it in the psychological sense: worldview as a personal construct of reality, an inner narrative through which we make sense of the world around us and which helps us chart a way forward.

Before we elect a leader to take us through one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history, we need to learn something about the construct of reality that helps him – they’re all men in this case – make sense of confusing issues and choose between competing interests.

People are definitely now more attuned to politics on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than being locked into institutional party loyalties. Yet in an age of exponential change, issue-based politics will not suffice. Faced with a plethora of fluid national and international situations that demand instant attention, politicians who operate without a very clear and firmly held set of principles will invariably fall back on opinion polls for guidance. When that happens, we’re thrown back in the gloomy world of spin and counter-spin.

What these times demand is leadership based on conviction, not convenience.

I once asked a friend who worked for Margaret Thatcher what he learned most about leadership whilst on her staff. What set the former Prime Minister apart from leaders and leadership candidates in her time? His answer was unequivocal: conviction.

‘I’m not going to say that everything Margaret Thatcher did was right,’ he added. ‘But I can say with confidence that she sincerely believed it to be right at the time. Her instruction to staff was always the same: this is what we believe, and we must make that clear.’ Whatever people thought of Mrs Thatcher – and the former PM is still a sharply divisive figure – they at least knew where she stood most of the time, and why.

If we’re not watchful, the age of TV debates will produce a lot of convenience politics, but precious little conviction politics. Mr. Cameron, for example, has made much of his idea of the Big Society. If I understand this correctly – and we’ve been given few specifics, so it’s hard to be sure – he wants to produce a society where individuals and local communities take more responsibility for and have more freedom to fix problems that directly affect them.

He has spoken about, for example, allowing more faith groups to set up schools and provide community services. This is laudable, as churches, synagogues and other faith groups have a long and proud history of providing services where the government couldn’t, or wouldn’t. At the same time, though, the Tory leader seems intent on maintaining a trend that would restrict the rights of faith communities to practice the dictates of conscience, especially in moral areas.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clegg has made all the right noises about providing a fairer Britain – a catchphrase his campaign shares with that of Labour. (I’ve no doubt that it rates well in their focus groups.) Yet he’s given few specifics on what that will mean in terms of political and social change.

These are examples of ‘soft values’ politics, where strong convictions are hidden away. Yet it was some type of strong conviction that presumably led all three candidates into politics in the first place. If that’s not the case, we must hope that none of them wins the day.

Some would argue that this emphasis on soft values comes about because TV doesn’t lend itself to forceful presentations of conviction. There may be some truth to this, as anyone who’s watched a little American TV preaching can attest. Conviction can come across as condemnation, or even comical over-acting, when squeezed into a rectangular screen in one’s living room.

If we’re not careful, though, Britain’s new TV politics will produce a generation of ultra-bland politicos, who’re happy talking in generalities but are completely unable to decide on or declare their core convictions, the principles they’ll fight and potentially lose everything to defend.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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