We’re All Stupid: (Not) Watching The Leader’s Debate

tv debate

After whole minutes of thought, The Bemolution decided not to watch last night’s seven-way leadership debate, and took in a 1997 episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer about hyenas possessing people while simultaneously watching Twitter watch the debate instead.

To lazily quote an old blog post rather than have to think of a different way of saying the same thing, the debates are an “awful development, further chiselling down what should be a vast, complex, citizenry-engaging discussion about how societies are run into a rubbish squabble over who gets the top job. They’re a stunningly shallow American export we never should’ve touched, and need scrapping immediately”.

We did actually watch the first thirty seconds while fiddling with the DVD player. The announcer burbled some codswallop about Salford. There were some sub-Apprentice/Spooks stop-start swooping camerawork over the Mancunian skyline, set to plasticated techno that sounded like it came from about 2001. Presenter Julie Etchingham said something about the ‘big iss-oos’ facing the country. Clegg looked terrified, Nicola Sturgeon looked stilted, Miliband looked calm, Leanne Wood gave a nice happy smile and looked delighted to be there, and David Cameron did a face that made him look like Michael Howard. All of which are the kind of profound, substantive judgements the debates encourage you to make. No-one ever really offered a satisfactory explanation for why the Irish parties weren’t invited. Then the DVD kicked in.

After two hours of watching 140-character opinions dribble out from the #leadersdebate hashtag, we’d gleaned many an insight into the woeful state of twenty-first century public discourse, including 1.) that a lot of people labour under the misapprehension that you can calculate the definitive winner of something as subjective and un-scientific as a debate, 2.) that a lot of people were just going to declare victory for the person they already liked the most going into it and 3.) that according to numerous self-appointed arbiters of truth – more numerous than those calling it for any other leader, anyway – the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was the most impressive.

Labour’s post-debate strategy seemed to be ignore the small anti-austerity parties and just repeatedly praise Ed Miliband as the most Prime Ministerial. Representative sample:

Labour Press Team ‏@labourpress  41 minutes ago

Format favours minor parties but what people have seen tonight is an alternative PM: Ed @Ed_Miliband #leadersdebate

While Labour’s official mouthpieces wisely chose to avoid having a go at parties with policies their core supporters would probably much rather have than theirs, the Labour Right were doing their utmost to trash the newcomers, particularly the Greens. Representative sample:

Joe Vinson ‏@JoeVinson  3 hrs3 hours ago

Natalie Bennett lives in fantasy land. She just wants to print money. #leadersdebate

Joe Vinson is apparently an NUS officer, so it’s reassuring that high-profile student politics continues to be dominated by sub-Blairite careerists who only joined the Labour Party because if they all just went Tory there wouldn’t be enough political establishment jobs for relentlessly self-advancing humanities graduates.

Eoin Clarke, paladin of the Miliband-era Labour Party and leading light behind the not really very left Labour Left group (as opposed to the excellent and genuinely left-wing Labour Representation Committee), continued to demonstrate his enormous social media work ethic.

Dr Éoin Clarke ‏@LabourEoin  7 minutes ago

David Cameron spoke for 16 minutes tonight. During that time he told 37 lies. I fact checked them all if u check my timeline #Leadersdebate

Quite a few non-political types were laying into Green Party policy, spouting endless unsubtle variations on the old ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ adage. Thankfully, people who weren’t economically illiterate were piping up to counter the austerity logic, including economist Ann Pettifor who we like quite a lot, and whose Just Money book taught us what money actually is.

Clegg & Cameron repeat the “there is no money left” mantra. Where did the £375bn to bail out the banks come from?

The Positive Money group manages to turn almost every subject round to money creation, with a nerdy tenacity that needs applauding, because it’s vastly, vastly important:

Unmentioned in the #leadersdebate: the power to create money and shape the economy lies not with voters, but banks. http://tinyurl.com/m9yvwad 

The Tories just repeatedly claimed David Cameron was the winner without ever really articulating why. Representative sampling:

Boris Johnson @BorisJohnson 18 hours ago

DC won. Miles ahead. In control. Strong leader. #leadersdebate

… which, like a lot of the pro-Tory tweets, came across like ‘David Cameron is winning because he looks the most Prime Ministerial, because he is the Prime Minister’. Other Conservatives, perhaps fearing the rise of multiparty politics, scaremongered about what would happen if it became the norm.

James Cleverly ‏@JamesCleverly  1 minute ago

Tonight’s #leadersdebate showed what chaos would look like if we don’t get a decisive result on the 7th May.

But the clearest thing we took away from the whole day’s coverage, not just half-looking at Twitter while the debate was on, was an unpleasant reminder that millions of people judge politicians by how well they ‘come across’, not what they actually say. To quote Twitter user Nissemus:

ITV viewers claiming people won based on how well they put their points across, rather than what the points were. Ridiculous.

It wasn’t just ITV viewers. In the words of one Ben Mitchell – apparently a writer of some kind, not Phil Mitchell’s son:

Forget the rest, these debates are for EdM to show a large audience he’s ready to be PM. And he hasn’t. Answers too wooden

Of course, the weakness of our chosen debate-analysing strategy is that we didn’t watch it – we were enjoying an evening in with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Head, so Ed Miliband could have been a geyser of rhetorical brilliance for all we know, or he could’ve performed with all the charisma of late ‘90s text-to-speech software.

But the whole point is that it shouldn’t really matter whether he was a bit wooden or not. He, and all other six, need to be judged on what they actually say – and even more than that, what they actually do if and when they get the power they’re currently all hustling for.

Earlier in the day, Huw Edwards was interviewing three token young people on News 24. One said he was leaning towards the Conservatives ‘because of the leader’. People seem to have it in their heads that there’s only kind of person who can run the country – and that person is someone who can speak naturally, come across confidently, look good in a suit and be capable of elegantly eating a bacon sandwich.

But who were the masterful, charismatic British Prime Ministers of the twentieth century? Destructive megalomaniacs like Thatcher and Blair. And who was the least worst Prime Minister of the twentieth century? Clement Attlee, a boring upper middle-class bureaucrat who efficiently delivered on a radical manifesto.

It’s the ideas that matter, not how exciting the tabloid press judges the person who will take the lead in trying to put them into action – and note, that’s ‘take the lead in’, not ‘do it single-handedly’. The media’s leadership obsession seems to suggest that a Prime Minister needs to be some sort of insomniac super-person who runs the country solo.

The attacks on Natalie Bennett and the Greens were also grimly revealing, too – particularly when you see a lot of relatively progressive people, and tons of young people, agreeing with them. Essentially, it just cements what’s been clear for years now, which is that millions and millions of people have outlooks that are fundamentally neoliberal, even among some who despise the Tories and lambast the current government at every opportunity.

A fair wedge of the Green-critical Twitter commentary was typical of a certain kind of self-identified centre-leftist. They’re not brainwashed Mail readers who blame everything on immigrants and poor people, they claim. They oppose the extreme, ideological cuts, rail against the horrors of Cameron and Clegg, soup kitchens and zero hours contracts. But of course, they say as if the most obvious, irrefutable thing in the world, we still need to balance the budget. Of course we need cuts. Of course we can’t just start nationalising things again – because where would the money come from?

In fact, all they’ve managed to do is shave off the top layer of the neoliberal values system, done away with the most obvious, egregious bits. But they’ve still mindlessly internalised all the rest of it. Their ideas of what it is to be ‘sensible’, ‘responsible’, ‘economically competent’ are neoliberal ones – including the standard neoliberal list of catastrophic economic myths, like the notion that we can ever ‘run out’ of money, and that a ‘balanced budget’ is a desirable thing rather than a recipe for a future where people are starving on the streets. If you believe in any of that, watch this.

And to end – apparently, Natalie Bennett said some stuff about the environment. Kevin Maguire, Mirror Editor:

Natalie Bennett good. For hope and against fear. Except when warning we’ll all die in an eco disaster

That was one of the kinder comments. Most of them rubbished her environmental concerns. And so, the final, probably most disastrous insight squeezed from the night’s events, is that virtually no-one, in the general public, or in the political or media classes, has any conception of how serious an issue the environment is. In Kevin Maguire’s world, it’s something you just don’t say. For a lot of others, it just invites scorn or ridicule.

Again, there’s this terrifying implication that for self-absorbed twenty-first century people, it’s just not convenient for there to be a looming ecological crisis requiring us to comprehensively reassess the way we live. Because we don’t want to comprehensively reassess the way we live. We want to buy too much, eat too much, go wherever we want to do whenever we want, and generally continue living at such a speed that ensures we’ll crash within the lifetime of the people who’ll cast their first vote next month.

We have no idea what she said, of course. We’d have said that ‘without the most radical overhaul in the way societies operate since the discovery of agriculture, this time next century crows will be eating what remains of your grandchildren’s starved and desiccated corpses as they lie in the shit-smeared back alleys of half-flooded city slums, while David Cameron’s descendants slowly lose their minds in fortified Survive-o-Towers powered by the last of society’s resources’.

Most people know nothing about economics, or the environment, or so much other stuff that’s vitally, vitally important. Because they’ve not been taught about it. But people aren’t born stupid. They’re made stupid. We’ve all been raised to be stupid – up until about two years ago The Bemolution didn’t know what interest was – by a system that’s very happy for us to be stupid, because it makes pushing us around easier. And unless we all make ourselves a bit less stupid sometime soon, we’d suggest you start digging your makeshift doomsday bunker now.