Tuesday 13 November 2012

Dumbing down politics to the level of "I'm A Celebrity"

The great British public loves voting: the entire weekend TV entertainment schedule, from The X-Factor to I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, is based on that simple fact.

More than 11 million of us tuned in on Sunday evening to enjoy the self-inflicted humiliation of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries in the Australian jungle, no doubt particularly looking forward to the appearance on the menu of the customary marsupial unmentionables. There will surely never be a better excuse for a heartfelt nationwide cheer of “Go Nad!”

And yet, at the same time, the great British public hates voting when it comes to trekking out to some dimly hit church hall on a dank November evening to make a cross on a piece of paper with a blunt pencil stub.

Which is why it is so widely predicted that turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections this Thursday will make the notion that the winners possess a democratic mandate completely laughable.

The mechanics of this election have been dreadfully handled. The timing could hardly be worse unless they had chosen to hold it on Christmas Day.

Because my work takes me away from home a great deal, I have long been on the electoral register at two different addresses. As I write three days before the vote, I have not received a polling card at either of them.

I have no idea whatsoever who is standing in one area, and am only dimly aware of two candidates in the other, though I believe that there are others.

What has the Government done to inspire me or anyone else to go out and vote? Indeed, what is the point of this exercise at all?

Where was the popular demand for us to vote for the people in charge of our police forces? Did some bright spark in a think tank note that the Americans vote for their sheriffs, and conclude that we should import the concept here?

Where is the evidence that the current system of oversight by police authorities is failing, or that their replacement by individuals is going to achieve anything useful?

Particularly when the brilliantly designed system has managed to debar some seemingly promising independent candidates on the grounds of trifling childhood misdemeanours, while holding the door ajar for superannuated Westminster politicians we fondly imagined we had dismissed from public life forever.

Vera Baird, defeated as MP for Redcar in 2010 on the biggest anti-Labour swing in the UK; now Labour's candidate as Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria

The only explanation I can see is the same one underpinning the Government’s desire to inflict elected mayors on as many communities as possible (and don’t imagine for a moment that having voted against this once will be the end of it).

We are assumed to be far too thick to see beyond one high profile individual, or to understand the workings of a council, committee, cabinet or Parliament.

Why settle for a dull old Watch Committee when you could have another Boris?

It is the application to the world of politics of the same shallow celebrity culture that dominates the TV schedules and the popular press, and I loathe it as fervently as I detest the sort of creepy-crawlies whose starring roles ensure that I will never willingly watch I’m A Celebrity.

I am old enough to remember when Clive James used to mock exactly this sort of thing by running clips from a hideous Japanese TV game show called Endurance, which I used to watch through clasped fingers with the horrified superiority of one who mistakenly believed that his own culture would never stoop so low.

Perhaps, of course, our leaders are right, and we really are this dumb. In which case, may I respectfully suggest that the next round of Police and Crime Commissioner elections is held on prime-time TV, with candidates afforded an opportunity to explain themselves and voting lines opened so that we may express an opinion from the comfort of our armchairs?

Because if they are determined to make public service a branch of celebrity culture, that is surely the only way to go. We might even introduce a bush tucker trial and induce Nadine Dorries to stand for election.

Because, let’s face it, she is highly likely to be looking for another job if she ever returns from Down Under.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.