by James Quinney
The General election of May 2005 has understandably generated much discussion over the last few weeks, with sentiments of despair in some quarters and jubilation in others. In a flurry of hype, journalists have employed many over-inflated adjectives regarding a "historic victory" whilst simultaneously accusing politicians of negativity and causing increased voter apathy by running the "least inspiring [campaign] in living memory".(1)
As Timothy Garton Ash notes in the Guardian, "by the standards of most previous British elections, from 1945 to 1997, the differences between party policies are remarkably small. Some will put taxes up a bit, others promise to bring them down a bit, but no-one proposes to change the way the economy is run", perhaps going some way to account for the fact that for the first time since 1923 the number of people who voted for the government was outnumbered by those who refused to vote, suggesting a correlation between greater choice for voters being equal to more votes.(2) A 2001 report published by the Hansard Society reveals that when it comes to general elections many say that they see "the parties as being 'all as bad as each other' - meaning that they had nothing positive to vote for which consequently led them to abstain".(3) This goes some way to refuting accusations that the drop in voter turn-out is caused by apathy. As the Guardian reports "whereas between 1984 and 2000 voter turnout fell from 83% to 72%, the proportion of people who said that they had boycotted products for ethical reasons rose from 4% to 31%. It also demonstrates that although 44% of people had attended a political meeting in 1979, this had dropped to 25% by 2000. Over the same period the proportion who had gone on a demonstration increased from 20% to 33%".(4)
This year around 61% of the electorate voted and 36% of them voted for Labour. Therefore, in total Labour received the votes of just less than 22% of the total electorate, the Liberal Democrats gained a point or two at the expense of the Conservatives, but on the whole voting patterns resembled the 2001 general election and a small change in voter preference may have quite easily put the Conservatives in power, also telling us very little about the country and public concerns.
As per usual the election campaigns for the major parties were run by public relations companies, which have become increasingly bigger businesses in the UK since the 1980s and in their day-to-day role sells us cars, fast food, cosmetics and other such products. Companies devote huge sums to creating images to delude consumers, featuring film stars, sexy models, or anything else that might hint at the product being greater than its worth. The business world does not spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to this end for no reason. It is an incredibly successful strategy, but one that is based on nothing more than deceit.
The PR industry is dominated by a few big players world wide, most of which are US or UK in origin and ownership. Since the 1980s governmental actions and policies have led to a vast increase in PR spending by governments and by corporations in their attempts to influence government policy. Fundamental to this is the relationship between deregulation of business and public relations. Media analyst David Miller describes it as a "revolving door of power, moving between local politics, think tanks and PR and ending up as a minister in charge of part of the deregulated industry [that they] helped to create."(5)
Voters appear to be increasingly aware of this however, as politicians, big business, and the media have all suffered a decrease in their ability to influence the general public. Part of this decrease in influence is due to a rise in mistrust and it should be of no great surprise that the three largest proponents of 'spin' are also the three least trusted groups in society. As a 2003 MORI poll shows journalists, politicians and business leaders are at the lowest end of the spectrum of public trust, with just 18% of the population saying they trusted journalists and politicians to tell the truth. The Financial Times reported these results, focusing on business leaders with the headline: "Business leaders enjoy revival in public trust", basing their headline on the fact that business leaders moved up form 25% in 2002 to 28% in 2003. Statistically three percentage points is barely a significant increase, leading Robert M Worcester (chairman of MORI) to conclude "If the FT does this to make their readers feel good, then little wonder that journalists rate bottom of the poll for their veracity." (6)
If we compare what people are actually voting for to what the candidates stand for, we find that they often have very little in common. The PR industry trains candidates to project personal qualities, produce slogans that might win votes and shift the focus away from tangible issues. These 'virtues' are conveyed in a number of ways. For example, we see Tony Blair in a 1997 landmark election broadcast: he is at home, he is dressed casually and drinks tea from an eclectic range of mugs; he expresses cynicism about politics and politicians and he reveals his love of football. None of these things are politically important, but they enforce our image of the Prime Minister as a trustworthy leader.
In the 2005 election The Conservatives' technique is to use language that just manages to stay on the side of respectability. “Are you thinking what we're thinking?” says the Conservatives' slogan, raising the distinct possibility that both you and they are thinking things that should not be spelt out too clearly.
As part of their election coverage, the Guardian notes that "The list of the top 10 issues covered by the media over... four weeks is just as notable for those themes that have remained almost entirely peripheral. Transport, Europe, housing and employment were among those that recorded less than 1% of all coverage." (7)
In 1997 four out of five or more saw the following as the most important issues in deciding who to vote for:
• Providing affordable homes for those who need them
• Tougher laws on the International arms trade
• Tougher policies to protect the environment
• Policies to reduce the gap between rich and poor in the UK and worldwide
• Firm measures to reduce energy consumption in order to tackle global warming
• Clear legislation that establishes the rights of individual citizens (8)
In terms of the most recent election, it would be hard to believe that the populations' attitudes have significantly changed on these issues between now and then. As Tom Curtin, managing director of Green Issues Communications explains: "It is very hard to vote when people don't know who or what they are voting for. Transparency and simplicity are at the heart of democracy and if a complex and inconsistent system deters people from voting - that is extremely dangerous." (9) In a system like this formal elections may occur but they will have very little meaning. A 1997 British Election Study cross-section survey announced that 58% of the British population agreed that people at large "have no say in government actions" and 45% went on to agree that "the party in power does not matter, things go on the same".(10)
When it comes to concerns over the ongoing conflict in Iraq and national security, 63% said they disapproved of the Prime Minister's handling of the situation, but seemed to show less concern when casting their actual vote. Labour and Conservative voters, whether they knew it or not, were actually voting to increase the threat of terror, which could understandably have terrible consequences. In February of 2003, five weeks before beginning the invasion, a secret Joint Intelligence Committee report stated that any terrorist threat was likely to increase by invading Iraq: "Al Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest threat to Western interests and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq... Any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, including al-Qaida," (11) which gives us some indication of how seriously the Blair government actually takes the threat of terrorism and accredits them some success in their goal of misleading the population.
What would happen if the main parties had been willing to address people's concerns on the issues they regard as vitally important? We can only speculate, but what we do know is that unless these issues are restored to the political agenda people are likely to continue to switch off to mainstream politics and continue to develop potential democratic alternatives to elections.
(1) Tuesday May 3, 2005 - The Sun
(2) Timothy Garton Ash, Thursday April 7, 2005 - The choice is not here, The Guardian
(3) Shelagh Diplock (ed.) - None of the above - Non-voters and the 2001 election
(4) Wednesday September 24, 2003 - Hutton is example for children - Blunkett, The Guardian
(5) David Miller and William Dinan - European Journal of Communication, Vol 15(1) - The Rise of the PR Industry in Britain, 1979 98,
(6) MORI, 27 February 2003 - Whom Do We Trust? Neither Politicians Nor Journalists!
(7) Owen Gibson, Monday May 2, 2005 - Negative campaign a turn-off for voters - Research highlights lack of tabloid coverage of election, The Guardian
(8) MORI, 1997 - Main Parties Betray Electorate on Environment and Social Justice
(9) Tom Curtin, managing director of Green Issues Communications
(10) British General Election Study, 1997; Cross-Section Survey
(11) House of Commons, Hansard, 15 October 2003, col. 234