Opinion

Politics needs saving. And it's going to have to be us who do it

We have to clean politics up and dust it down because it is being made ignoble by media cretins

The UK’s national government coalition of the 1930s used Mass Observation research to shape some of their policies. Image: Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

I was told by a journalist interviewing me recently that “the mood music of today is miserable”. That is, that after 14 years of Tory politics people are beaten down. Are unhappy and glum because they are finding it difficult to survive.  

Perhaps. But going about the place – trains, pubs, beaches, restaurants and even supermarkets – I am far from convinced that the mood music is in fact bleak.  

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This is not denying that I could have easily lived the last few months going from one food bank to another. There are terrible individual realities that have come into being these last 14 years. Yes, government policy has led to an increase of people living in the emergency of poverty. Now more people are concerned about how to make ends meet, and people formerly comfortable find prices and interest rates discomforting. And threatening.  

Yet people can still be seen getting on with life, you can still overhear people concerned about a dress they have bought that in fact proved the wrong size. Or people planning the holiday of a lifetime or having returned from one that did or did not turn out fine.  

In the 1930s there was something called Mass Observation that did serious work going around trying to find out what people think by listening to what they say. They were checking the ‘heat’ – the ‘weather’ so to speak – of individuals’ lives. If I remember correctly a lot of the data, or a good amount of it, was overhearing conversations. They interviewed people but a good part of it was conversations between people that were at times desperate, but were also about personal things that showed deep concerns about kitchens, armchairs, wirelesses and at times sexual desires.  

A bunch of snoopers were let loose on the country, so to speak, and came up with a mixed bag of results. There was no conclusion, as there was with the journalist who said to me “the mood music is miserable”. Or if there was that was only part of the conclusions.  

I suppose what got me thinking was this idea that the way of the world is coordinated. That everyone is reading something, or watching something or believing a particular thing. Or feeling something.  

The BBC issued one of its little radio plugs which went along the lines of “the air you breathe, the safety of the streets you walk, the prosperity of your children (etc) depends on your vote. And we are here to make sure that your vote counts”. Which I took to mean they were going to make damn sure that they would be at every election result, every argument for and against, every breathless moment as non-experts from the media repeat continuously what they have already said before.  

A constant stirring to make sure that this big election thing and its vitality does not pass us by. I object to this kind of bull because it does not match the mood of the country – because there are always conflicting moods of the country. TV and radio political programmes are largely appallingly empty and vacuous, and intent on making everyone feel anxious about making the right decision.  And as the mood music is decisively miserable then there is something big going on. And you shouldn’t miss it. 

It’s the selling of the election as an act of desperation. The unfortunate thing is that it does not embrace the whole of the country because actually most people are not listening. They are getting on with their contented or troubled lives irrespective of what the feverish media bubble is trying to tell them with its pronouncements and prognostications.  

This is a battle for reality without recognising that there are different realities and priorities going on at the moment. If anything, the media is trying to prove George Orwell right, that we all operate a group speak and group think reality.  

That is why the big questions of the day are never asked of the candidates: “What is different from what you are offering that is any different from what we already have?” and “Why is the crisis that keeps people visiting the food bank never resolved? Why can’t you address the issues that produce poverty?” 

You can only increase the sense of disappointment in people’s lives if you take them through the charade that the media presents the election as. It’s as if a drug has been administered. An empty thoughtlessness results. And politics is allowed to go on its largely splintered and broken way. Until the next media-inspired charade.  

In some ways we have to rescue politics from the media and the politicians. We have to clean it up and dust it down because it is being made ignoble by media cretins. Politics – from the people – is more precious than ever. But going through the meat grinder of the media, it never gets to the truth, only its appearance. Politics is not about personality, but it is reduced to it.  

In short, politics is about the very best way of spending public money. Alas, this precious hoard is seldom protected and properly used. Because people are convinced that politics is about personality. This is a reduction of politics. To a media-led game. 

And it stinks. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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