Less than four weeks to go to the important European vote! No not the Eurovision (that’s next weekend, and yes it’s far more important)…we’re talking about the European Parliament elections.Are your banners up?
Damian Hockney, not a particular friend of the EU it has to be said, offers you his opinion on why “this election business has not really caught on in the new European democracy”…
Kilroy was here. But if he doesn’t come back again and cause a stir, then we can look forward to a good snooze through the Euro Elections. Which of course you all know are set for 4th June. It could of course be Kilroy, but it could also be, say, Cilla Black. Or Susan Boyle. Or Jeremy Clarkson. If none of the above turn up for duty and stand to run a party/seek election/wear a funny hat while singing the Laughing Policemen and extricating spiders from their nether regions in the jungle just outside Brussels (that’s the political bit)…well then, for the media there will be no “point” in covering these elections. No “point”? On the telly, what do points make? No not prizes. Points = Celebrities in media world. There is “no point” in giving serious coverage to the Euro Elections unless there is “a point” (a celebrity). And the ability to do the politics is, er, well…optional.
The coverage otherwise will consist of the statutory perfunctory minor slots on British state radio and tv. Fatuous, banal, pointless to anyone who knows anything about the elections, boring to those who don’t…restricted by state guidelines and made safe by state radio and tv apparatchiks. All the while claiming to want to make people “engaged” with politics, when the marriage between people and politicians has already broken down. I was speaking to someone at state radio and television about the tickbox coverage the other day. The obligatory 30 second slots already planned. I suggested that they write them now. The three second delay in response (an eternity on the phone or the radio) indicated that they already had.
The European Elections have never exactly set the capital alight. Turnout has generally dropped and dropped, and even with the cocktail bounce of Kilroy, Joan Collins et al weighing in, more than two out of three still did not vote last time. Whichever way you argue it, the real likely level of UK turnout for a Euro Elections without a panto is about 25% – that’s three out of four not bothering.
The answer the politicians all seem to give – we need to vote to ‘stop the horned ones’ – is of course fatuous. ‘Get out and vote to stop the BNP’. Wow, great reason. Not “vote for us because we are offering something”. No mention ever of a positive reason TO vote. And it’s patronising – it is effectively pushing the blame onto the electorate.You have to start by giving the voter a reason to vote. A toy parliament with few meaningful powers except to elect hundreds of highly paid politicians is not a reason. Well it’s a reason – an idiotic one, but a reason (to paraphrase George Sanders’ character Addison de Witt in the Bette Davis film ‘All About Eve’).
There appear to be five key reasons why European Elections have fared so badly and will no doubt do even worse…
1 European Elections appear irrelevant
For much of the time, politicians in the UK try to divert us from knowing what is being done by “Europe” on our behalf. When you read news stories about inexplicable new laws and rules, government and opposition (and most of the newspapers themselves) do somersaults to try and avoid telling us that these new laws are usually EU Directives which must be obeyed, cannot be amended, altered or repealed in any way by whatever party was in power, and that parliament has become a rubberstamp for them. Waste policy, retention of internet and phone data, charging for directory enquiries, strange changes to the method of calculating postal weights? All get put down to “regulators” and “government”. But we are rarely told that the regulators and government are the EU. It is difficult even for the media to get its head round and in any event preferable for it to see things in terms of “Gordon”, “Tony”, “David” etc…Neelie, Gunter and Stavros do not have quite the same ring (except of course that those three EU Commissioners have far more real power over their areas of our government than ‘our own’ equivalent ministers). And of course these issues are used as a tribal way of attacking the party a particular newspaper might oppose in UK politics.
When the European Elections come round, our government and opposition can hardly now say: “80% of our laws are made by the EU. We can do practically nothing about them. The European Parliament isn’t involved much in this process but it’s at least something. It’s called a parliament. So go out and vote because at least it’s in the city where the decisions are being made.” So all are embarrassed into a form of shifty silence about these elections – voters can hardly be forgiven for thinking they are irrelevant, as they are of course in many ways because the European Parliament does not have any power to legislate and is subservient in every way to the other institutions. It is very similar in design and intention to the London Assembly in that regard.
And the more the numbers of MEPs are shaved off each region with each new expansion of the EU (London down from 10, then to 9, and then to 8), the less likely small parties like Greens, UKIP and BNP are to make headway (it takes a larger percentage of the vote to secure one seat every time you remove one). It is a talk shop for the state sanctioned parties.
2 No-one appears to know what the EU parliament does, or can do. Those talking to us about it are economical with the truth to make it all look more important and relevant (during an election that is).
Anyone seen the poster ads for the European Elections? These are simply the most blatant example of false advertising I think it is possible to engage in. One planned poster shows a lion and a domestic cat, with the question “How much should we tame financial markets?” What precisely has that to do with the European Parliament? Nothing. Nothing at all. The European Parliament has no say, no involvement and no status in this issue. The ad campaign is in that sense fraudulent and evidently so for anyone who knows anything about the powers of the European Parliament.
The parliament can talk, but can no more introduce financial legislation than can the London Assembly. Any vote is meaningless. And it is simply a desperate hit for a campaign which has to find something current and relevant to put on a pretty poster. But maybe the ad agency doesn’t understand the European Union and its toy parliament either. Simply by avoiding the truth, politicians and their paid agents really cannot fool people in this way forever. And the process undermines further what little remaining authority the political class has. And of course it will not encourage people to get out and vote. A poster about the financial crisis will not suddenly engage large numbers of voters. However it will probably get the agency its huge fee. So job done then.
3 The politicians actually do not WANT the electorate to know about “Yourup”
Whatever you think about the European Union (I was once a supporter, now an opponent of ever more control being ceded to it), those at the heart of it, and the politicians in the member countries, appear to have a problem with letting the people know what it is about. So they retreat into fatuous slogans about “working together”…”in partnership with our allies working for peace”, “it’s your choice” etc. The issues about democratic legitimacy are brushed aside with mere slogans (anyone who opposes is possibly ‘xenophobic’ – a new euro crime), and there is no discussion. When there is a discussion, the pro-EU side loses the case spectacularly – as in Ireland during the recent referendum campaign on a treaty to give the EU more power. The Yes campaign started out with a 65-35 advantage, and lost it 55-45. The same in Holland and France over the Constitution a couple of years earlier. The Yes side had nothing to say, and dared not say it anyway…so it left all the running to the No side and moaned on the sidelines as the No side scored hit after hit where media rules demanded equal coverage. It is hardly surprising that the Irish political class, along with tame journalists, are now trying to use new interpretations of these rules to claim that for the next vote they can deny the No side meaningful media coverage. The Yes campaigns featured bland slogans and pretty pictures of (wildly unpopular) politicians patting babies and handing out goodies to the disadvantaged. A funny analogy for the EU all round.
For all the media coverage of the porn film expenses type fiascos in the UK parliament, there is hardly anything on the truly staggering payoffs to EU Commissioners about to be doled out. Some in the job for barely a year. And the even more amazing tax free status/immunities from prosecution etc that most of this elite enjoys. That’s “Yourup”, it’s foreign news coverage. It’s not about us. But of course it is. In case anyone hadn’t noticed, it’s our country now. But it doesn’t matter to much of the UK media – unless it is to retreat into banal and offensive anti-foreign sentiment on one side, or slavishly follow some EU line on the other. Both diverting us from the real debate which needs to be had about democracy, and how decisions are made. By whom.
4 Parties are not same as ones you vote for
It is a very odd system, is it not, where you vote for a party with one particular policy, the representatives are elected and they then immediately join another party you’ve probably never heard of with a stance totally at odds with the one you thought you had voted for. Traditionally the Tories have stood on a broadly/slightly eurosceptic platform in the UK and run a European Elections campaign which sounds tough on national powers etc…then the minute they have been elected have ceased to be Conservatives and become European Peoples Party representatives, the most slavishly europhile group in the European Parliament. There is a sign that this might not happen after the elections with the Tories (finally, after decades) but don’t hold your breath. So what about that slogan “It’s Your Choice” which MayorWatch reported a few weeks back. What, actually, are you choosing?
5 Media indifference, unfairness in coverage on state radio and tv
The broadcast media, led by state radio and tv, implement state guidelines which tongue in cheek affect to ensure fairness but are in fact designed to reinforce the existing old party stranglehold: broadcasters are effectively barred from giving meaningful media coverage to smaller parties by a two tier system of “fairness” – one fairness rule for the state’s “main” parties and one for the state’s “minor” parties – the former is easy to implement and run by consent with the three main parties with acres of media, the latter is so difficult to follow that producers have said to me that it is “impossible” and a “total disincentive to give any media coverage to the small parties”. Such are the rules that the small parties are sidelined, and given bizarre token coverage as early as possible in the campaign to get them out of the way and “prove” that the system is fair. But of course they are buried by the welter of daily coverage to the other parties which is where the real “balance rules” apply. Being barred from paid advertising on tv of course means that state radio and tv has a stranglehold over the message.
And independent broadcasters? As Nick Ferrari said to me on air about another election: “this situation is crazy. It means we as broadcasters can give vast amounts of coverage to the three ‘main’ parties, but cannot effecively cover the small parties, because two sets of balance rules apply”. And by and large, state radio and tv feels very uncomfortable with smaller parties and regards them as a pain in the neck to be discouraged. Too many parties, tiny amounts of space to be doled out EXACTLY and a bogeyman included – which means that every time the Greens or UKIP are given 12.5 seconds so must the BNP (it is effectively advertising as it is uncritical and bland pap coverage). Interestingly, it is fine to spend large amounts of time smearing one minor party (the BNP), but the same amount of time of course is not given to the others (Greens, UKIP etc). There is a case, incidentally, for the Greens and UKIP, in the event that BNP are given this type of “coverage” for the Euros, to insist upon similar numbers of minutes in similarly prominent positions.
The BNP is given the oxygen of plenty of coverage as the bogeyman, slagging the party off of course, and paradoxically thus ensuring that a firm percentage will vote for it (I wrote about this for the London Assembly elections). The understanding being that anyone the whole political class disapproves of must have at least that to recommend them. What this lack of choice really leads to of course is disaffection, lower and lower turnouts and the reinforcement of complete indifference to a body which has little power, which has little role other than as a rubberstamp for the unelected institutions of the EU, and which is not even understood by the media. If you watch tv, and it appears your only choice is the LibLabCon party or the BNP, you’ll more than likely say thanks but I will not bother.
Of course UKIP has made strides at the Euro Elections in the teeth of media opposition…but at the last one it needed the Kilroy bandwagon to just push the LibDems into fourth place. With nothing so far apparent on the circus front from anyone, it looks like there will be “no point” for the media in this election…and less point for the voters who will (unless they vote UKIP) be voting for a political party on a platform they don’t know about, to do unknown things when they get there, using information which is misleading in a Parliament they know nothing about, which is barred from introducing legislation. Oh, and the parties they vote for change their name within 24 hours and go over to policies which are in complete opposition to the keynote of their election campaign.