Adversarial politics is exactly what we need

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 11 April 2012 in Diary
All the evidence suggests that the public likes to see politicians get in a scrap, so why do journalists and politicos seem to hate it so much?

Punch and Judy politics, urgh, don’t you just hate it? Immature politicians bickering like schoolchildren; personality campaigns without policy or substance; it’s all so damn... watchable.

“I’ve never known a political contest so bitter, divisive and egotistical as the battle to take charge of the capital in this Olympics year” wrote Times columnist Rachel Sylvester on Tuesday morning. This neatly mirrored a piece written almost a year ago to the day in which she described the AV referendum contest as “one of the nastiest, most negative campaigns I can remember. It’s the politics of the playground, a slanging match.” 

Rachel, we can gather, likes her campaigns policy-focused, which is fair enough. But she sure does also love writing about the scuffles and the underhand tactics. I don’t recall her filling any of her 800 weekly wordles with a great treatise on the relative merits of electoral reform. And I suspect that I might have to give up waiting for a grand comparison of the London Mayoral candidates’ respective manifesto commitments. It’s as if analysing policies and political theory might not be as enticing to readers as reporting the bust-ups...

Another person who isn’t a fan of a good ol’ political scrap is the current Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. Week after week, just as the temperatures are rising and MPs facing off across the divide are really starting to get stuck in to each other, in steps our diminutive Speaker to chide all concerned and warn that their behaviour is “putting off the public”.

But is it really? Of course many people will say that politicians are infantile and condemn their antics at PMQs. But dig deeper and you find people more often use their easy criticism as a cover for the inconvenient truth that they simply can’t be bothered to actually read Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms or Ed Balls’ tax plan.   

‘Personality’ or ‘negative’ campaigns, as they’ve somewhat unfairly been christened, are seen as one of the ‘bad’ imports from American politics (see also: candidates wheeling out wives and children for the cameras and declaring personal tax and income). But alongside these campaigns come things like increased transparency and televised debates – all personality and attack politics. The first ever leaders' debate before the 2010 general election had peak viewing figures of 10.3 million. Compare that with the weekly political debate held by the BBC – Question Time – which averages around two million, and even allowing for general election interest the difference is substantial.

The evidence all points to the public enjoying a bit of political scrapping. They enjoy tales of expletive-filled lift-based bust-ups and delicious bedroom tittle-tattle. Just look at the success of things like the Guido Fawkes blog or Private Eye’s libel-inducing gossip pages. When people moan about the way MPs act towards each other, they know deep down they haven’t ever read a manifesto, let alone made it through a story about tax policy in the FT.

When politicos and journalists condemn the way politicians are acting they are invariably covering for the fact their favoured candidate is trailing in the polls. In Rachel Sylvester’s case I can’t help feeling that covering Boris and Ken in muck helps out her personal choice – independent Siobhan Benita – who has been adopted by a similar ‘North London dinner party set’ that jumped so enthusiastically at the chance of AV. In The Guardian’s case (which has also bemoaned the state of the Mayoral contest in an editorial on Monday) it’s because they are struggling to support Ken Livingstone’s car-crash campaign.

Adversarial politics is fun, feisty and pushes Westminster onto the front of the newspapers, shunting TV talent shows into the entertainment columns. And I think we should welcome that. 

Dylan Sharpe is a UK political PR and media consultant and former Head of Press for the NO to AV campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @dylsharpe.

Tags: Adversarial Politics, Boris Johnson, Guido Fawkes, Ken Livingstone, London Mayoral Election 2012, Private Eye, Rachel Sylvester

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