One week in to the 2019 general election campaign, and I have already turned off the television, tuned the radio to 6 Music, and my media browsing is fully focussed on cats. How did it come to this?
It’s the nastiness, of course. There is nothing too trivial to be weaponised, nothing so serious that it can’t be treated with absolute cynicism. It’s the politics of the ‘Sidebar of Shame’. Throw out noisy taunts, circulate memes in Comic Sans, “Your economic policy is too fat!”, “Your fiscal strategy is too ugly!” It’s hard for a voter to think straight when it’s less a question of competing parties trading arguments about policies, or offering rival visions of what they want the country to be, and more a case of a really bad Marvel movie. The Incredible Sulk meets The Invisible Man. The sort of film Hugh Grant thinks is much too loud. I’m with Hugh on this.
Let’s start with the racism, which saturates everything political right now. The anti-Semitism is real, and ugly, and has not been addressed effectively for far too long. The Islamophobia is real, and ugly, and there hasn’t even been a pretence at addressing it. But there are other racisms and hatreds being weaponised, too, those we scarcely want to look at. Why isn’t this a Windrush election? A Grenfell election? There’s plenty of tokenism about, but little systematic analysis of why some people’s life chances are structured to be lesser than those available to others.
There’s also the importation of some of the worst hatreds of Indian sub-continental politics into Britain. The brave and principled MP (now candidate) for Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who earlier this year was applauded in the Chamber for calling out Johnson’s racism, last week Tweeted this, “I urge my Hindu and Sikh British compatriots: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of religious hardliners, trying to wedge apart our cohesive community, circulating lies on WhatsApp. They won’t silence the likes of me, who will speak up for human rights.” It’s part of a clear Tory strategy of trying to woo the ‘Indian vote’ by BJP-ish appeals to communalism. David Cameron started it when he shared a stage at a BJP rally in Wembley with Narendra Modi. I thought then that it was dangerous for a British politician to lend the sheen of international statesmanship with an Indian PM with a long record of encouraging, even inciting, communalist anger, hate, even riots, sometimes leading to deaths. The Tories might legitimately see the growing Indian middle class as a new ‘vote bank’ for the party, but that shouldn’t be done by feeding the worst of bigotry.
As a voter I long for sensible, sober, secular elections, in which parties don’t shrilly rule out working with others, or lie on their election literature, or weaponise hate, or circulate disinformation, or take money from shady sources. I long for a news media that reports fairly, accepts honest disagreements, and separates news from opinion. I want to lower the temperature, and raise the excitement. A democratic event should be a festival of ideas, not a sewer stuffed with fat bergs.
Now for a nice cup of tea. In silence.