05. A02.

Media & Society

To Vote or Not to Vote

This article was written pre-election 2015.

The general election is coming!!!

That is the essential message you would have garnered from watching TV recently as the broadcasters have been busy debating who will take part in their live debates and what they will debate over. Nevertheless there is indeed a general election coming soon, and no doubt a veritable smorgasbord of TV debates in which everyone is left deeply unsatisfied, so let’s meet the contestants of the ‘Oxford/Cambridge Great British Bake Off’.

To Vote or Not to Vote

Door no1 reveals Conservative leader David Cameron. Mr Cameron struggles not to look smug even in times of national crisis and is prone to leaving his children alone in pubs. Door no2 reveals Labour leader Ed Miliband. Mr Miliband…. Door no3 reveals Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg. Mr Clegg enjoys breaking promises and fetching biscuits for Mr Cameron. Door no4, hand-crafted by the finest English carpenter around, reveals UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. (Whilst Mr Farage did not attend Cambridge or Oxford, he did attend a private school and is therefore excused) Mr Farage enjoys cameo roles on Fox News and is deeply worried by Romanians.

These four white privately educated men are currently busy campaigning for our votes, yet there is a strong sense among people I know, and more broadly young people in general, that come May 7th there will be an awful lot of people who will abstain or spoil their vote. Surely this can’t even really be considered a surprise given the potential prime ministers above? At least when the Americans voted Obama in they were committing to, if nothing else, an inspiring and charismatic leader.

To Vote or Not to Vote

We however have the magic mix of poor policies and poor politicians; the Conservatives are currently praying that peer Stephen Green is not called to testify about his role in the HSBC tax scandal.

Labour have recently been called out by none other than Michael Sheen who eloquently pointed out that they too have been undermining the NHS for years. The Lib Dems are trying all kinds of gimmicks to desperately get Nick Clegg back to where he was prior to 2010… when nobody knew who he was. Meanwhile UKIP are trying to repair the irreparable damage caused to Farage’s image by ‘dry January’: without pint in one hand and cig in the other Farage’s ordinary man credentials have taken a hit. All this points to a regression in the recent trend of increased voter turnout that we have seen in the past two elections:

To Vote or Not to Vote

The potential saving grace for this year’s turnout is that the current poll forecasts have it pretty close, meaning some people will turn out in the belief that their vote will make a difference. Yet herein lies another problem with British politics: there is no discernible left and right anymore. No, don’t worry, I’m not clamouring for another Thatcher figure, rather just for more of a choice. The lack of difference between the two major parties goes someway in explaining why they have taken a gradually smaller portion of the vote than twenty years prior:

To Vote or Not to Vote

Another by-product of the two major parties becoming much closer in ideology is that it creates a space and appetite in society for a third-party to arise, which in the UK has unfortunately, and somewhat inevitably been UKIP. This appetite for an alternative has been further provoked by the economic stagnation in the UK, and in other parts of the EU where economies are actually shrinking it should come as no surprise that the far-right parties are gaining support. Indeed UKIP can only aspire to be as blatantly xenophobic as parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary or Dutch Freedom in Holland.

Another alternative which many people have taken up, which is marginally better than that of UKIP, is listening to celebrities talk politics. Not celebrities in the classical sense of being known for achievement, but rather in the contemporary sense of the equation: lack of clothes = fame² (Copyrighted equation, keep your hands off Einstein). The 2015 Oscars may have looked the same as they do every year, but underneath all the expensive suits, dresses, watches, makeup, awards etc, there was actually a bit of bite.

John Legend pointed out that the 1965 Civil Rights Act still is not being universally upheld in the US. Patricia Arquette raised the issue of female equality, specifically wage equality, and Laura Poitras thanked Edward Snowden for his courage. There were further notable issues raised about immigration, treatment for war veterans and LGBT awareness. This climate of celebrity events mixed with politics looks set to continue for years to come. Whilst Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson have been hot on politics for years, others are now starting to realise their potential: we live in an ocular age where image is everything, a natural habitat for the celebrity. Indeed celebrities are carefully constructed so that every time they step outside they are photo ready, and if they are not they will be crucified, figuratively that is…but I wouldn’t rule it out literally in a hundred years.

To Vote or Not to Vote

This image-centric idea retains true to politics; it’s why in 1960 Kennedy won the TV debate whilst simultaneously losing the radio debate, it’s why Gordon Brown never stood a chance, it’s why the Labour party plasters huge billboards with Cameron’s seven-finger forehead on, and in retort the Conservatives point out that Ed Miliband looks like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit.

Image is unfortunately as important in politics as it is in the advertising industry, much to the lamentation of Neil Postman. In addition to having image on their side, celebrities also have the social media platform. You may argue that politicians too have social media, which is true, whilst also being completely wrong. From a reach point of view when Emma Watson tweets she is connecting with 17.1 million followers, whereas when Prime Minister David Cameron tweets he is reaching less than 1 million people. When Stephen Fry tweets he is connecting with over 9 million followers, Ed Miliband reaches less than 500,000 followers. You can see that in this game of ‘Twitter Top Trumps’ celebrity wins every time.

Another inherent flaw in politicians on social media is that no matter what they say, it will inevitably be turned upside down and against them. Look no further than the #AskNigelFarage in 2014 where the majority of people were not asking about policies, instead asking joyous questions such as ‘As a gay man, how much are you willing to pay me to stop the rain and flooding?’, and ‘Does it upset you that McDonalds call them “French” Fries?’.

This potent combination of media visibility, social media mobility and image awareness makes celebrities instantly more accessible and relatable than politicians. In America it is already commonplace for celebrities to put their name, or brand, behind a politician, get set to see much more of that in the UK in the coming years. I also believe that we will see more of the Michael Sheens of the world publically speaking out, with the result that people increasingly listen and want to listen to celebrities talking politics. Signs of this can already be seen using Russell Brand as an example: The Trews (Brand’s web series that gives you true news) has over a million subscribers on YouTube and looks set to grow hand in hand with Brand’s appearances on Question Time.

The end result of celebrity involvement in politics is an unknown, however when you go into the polling station in May, with the perfectly legitimate view that there is nobody worth your vote just remember that by not voting you are leaving room for an alternative: the alternative may be a far-right party, it may be greater celebrity involvement in politics, or, and it pains my innate cynicism to say this, it may lead to much needed change in politics in the UK. The latter however seems a distant dream away…my cynicism is much happier now.