Even on its own terms Westminster journalism makes increasingly little sense

The elite world of Westminster journalism used to be irrelevant to people's lives. Now, as an election approaches, it can barely comprehend itself. 

John Smith
10 April 2015
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The BBC’s 2015 “poll of polls”

Watching or reading most commentary of the general election, you could be forgiven for thinking that the political mainstream was suffering a moment of terrible confusion. By and large, however, the confusion of politics is the confusion of political commentary, and when pundits and hacks talk about the incomprehensibility of politics, they are really talking about their own inability to comprehend how politics is changing.

The world of Westminster journalism used to resemble the elite talking about the elite – irrelevant to most people’s lives by virtue of its privileged social perspective. This is of course still true: political journalists are overwhelmingly posh white men. But the dramatic twist of 2015 has been the transformation of the Westminster lobby from a privileged bubble into a circle of increasingly desperate soothsayers – irrelevant on its own terms, incapable of giving insight into who will win, why they will win, or even, beyond a set of geographical areas, what the key battlegrounds are.

Most political commentary revolves around trying to link “events” on the campaign trail – usually created or hosted by the media – to polling results, thereby delivering content resembling analysis. But at this election, Tory banker scandals, press letters denouncing Labour and piece-by-piece policy announcements have had a minimal impact on polling figures.

Other pundits (especially those in the right wing press who have most to gain from it) have concerned themselves with obsessively tracking the approval ratings of party leaders, when in fact these have not mirrored voting intention in months. The leaders’ debates, too, have had almost no impact – nor have major media blunders and “brain-fades” (the Greens were haemorrhaging votes long before it). Even the polls taken on their own seem to offer no insight into the dynamics of the election: Labour and the Tories have been neck and neck for years, and will go neck and neck into polling day.

To an extent, the inadequacy of mainstream political journalism stems from dynamics internal to the political bubble, such as the new multi-party reality (at least for the moment) of the SNP, UKIP and the Greens. For now, most political journalists do not engage with the real meaning of the end of two-party politics, instead expressing everything in terms of parliamentary arithmetic about “Labour’s losses in Scotland” or even vaguer notions that electoral calculus is now “complicated” –but they will in time recalibrate.

After all, it is simply not true that multi-party politics and political complexity necessarily reflect or cause each other. Britain has had at least as many political tendencies before; they found expression, by and large, through a much broader Labour party. For all the mystification, the superficial complexity of polling data and voting is easily comprehensible.

What it masks is a deeper crisis. When it is acknowledged by journalists, the inexplicable nature of people’s voting intentions is usually ascribed to voter atomisation or a lack of engagement. In fact, the opposite is the case: people’s concerns, as well as the political reality of the election, are increasingly polarised and ideological.  Party hacks – especially in the Labour Party – are still obsessed with searching for a “centre ground” which no longer contains any voters. Most people want bold policies, albeit not all of them progressive. There are now overwhelming majorities for traditionally left wing economic policies such as renationalisation of rail and utilities, and for more authoritarian policies on immigration and crime.

Victory in the medium term will go to whichever side can grasp one half of this vision, and fight to convince the public on the other; and whichever side wins, the “centre ground” (read: the acceptance of neoliberal economics by most European social democratic parties) will be redundant. The loss of this point of reference, along with the geographical and social splits in the electorate caused by the financialisation of the economy (which have been explored well by Paul Mason) and the consequent constitutional questions, represent a major crisis for the political elite. Broadly speaking, the social products of Thatcherism are now eating away at its political base.

The commentariat is part of this elite in more ways than one. It’s not just that there is a revolving door between the BBC, the big papers, and advisory roles at major political parties, or even that everyone went to the same school. It’s that the whole concept of our “professional” political journalism – its idea of balance, neutrality and exclusion of radical voices – is tied to the idea of a sovereign centre ground. It cannot acknowledge that this positioning is vanishing and irrelevant, even if that means that it cannot properly analyse what is happening politically. As a result, organisations such as the BBC have developed entire work streams dedicated to mystifying electoral politics and producing hours of rolling coverage.

Eventually, this version of political commentary will collapse, just as the political earthquake currently underway will generate new constitutional arrangements and policy consensuses (although just how original or how progressive these are remain to be seen). Already, a large proportion of the population are seeking their election coverage directly from political parties and campaigns, aided by social media and the ability to bypass professional journalists who increasingly say nothing at length. If we really want to develop the tools to reverse it, we must see the struggle against the legacy of Thatcherism is a battle to understand, as well as to fight, the status quo.   

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