What does #GE2015 tell us about power?

It’s been a few weeks now since I posted anything here. I’ve been busy: trying to finish the book version of my PhD thesis (it’s getting there), studying for a German exam (I took it on Wednesday), preparing for a trip to Greece (I arrived yesterday!) and carrying on gathering evidence for my database on public monuments n Roman Greece. Apart from all that I’ve also allowed myself to get rather absorbed in the twists and turns of the never-ending election campaign: watching the debates – or the reality TV-shows David Cameron allowed us to have instead of debates – reading commentaries in the newspapers and avidly studying the polls trying to predict how any workable government is ever going to emerge from the messy situation we’ve arrived at. A big part of my research is to do with the nature of power in the ancient world and following the election closely has got me thinking a bit more about how power works in our own society.

What fascinates me most about the way the battle for Number 10 has played out over the last four weeks is just how far removed it all is from the way that the democratic process in theory is surely supposed to work. In theory we’re supposed to be faced with a choice of politicians and parties trying to persuade us that their policies are in the best interests of the country so that we can decide who we want to vote for. Instead the whole thing has taken on the character of an excruciatingly intricate game of strategy with each of the players trying to outmanoeuvre their opponents to gain the minutest of advantages. It’s clear that neither Labour or the Conservatives are really playing for a majority by this stage and there’s been a lot of speculation in the media about possible coalition arrangements once we get our inevitable hung parliament.

It seems to me, however, that the real stakes of the game are about a term that’s been thrown around a lot over the last few weeks but hasn’t really received the scrutiny it deserves, “legitimacy”. We don’t have any constitutional rules to cover the likely outcome of next week’s election and by precedent any government that can survive a vote of confidence in the Houses of Parliament would in fact be legitimate. However, Cameron and Miliband know that whatever other obstacles they might face in trying to put together a coalition, or in governing as a minority government, they are more likely to be seen as ‘legitimate’ by the public if they can achieve one, or ideally both, of two magic numbers – the most seats in the Houses of the parliament and the largest share of the popular vote. And to achieve that end various strategies have been deployed – information is withheld from the electorate, bribes are offered, all sorts of underhand tricks are resorted to. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of our two main parties is more guilty on that score.

Maybe it is naïve to hope that power should be contested on the grounds of ideas but I believe that ideal is at least worth striving for and this election is demonstrating how pitifully small a role the clash of ideas actually is actually playing in deciding who gets the keys to Downing Street. Even in last night’s Question Time, there was no real debate, no real discussion. The politicians predictably ducked and weaved, changed the subject, repeated well-worn platitudes and gave very few actual arguments that might change anybody’s mind – about anything. But even the questioners, much lauded in the press for their aggressive hard-line approach, weren’t open to discussion – they weren’t really asking questions in the hope of hearing answers. They were baying for blood and out to savage whichever of the leaders they personally disliked the most.

I find it very hard to believe that at this stage in the election there can really be as many undecided voters out there as there are supposed to be. I made up my mind who I wanted to vote for weeks ago and if the Question Time audience is as representative as it is supposed to be the Great British public are even more opinionated than I am. It’s almost as though we don’t want any real discussion of the issues anymore because we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that that isn’t really what matters in determining power in our democracy. We’d rather be steered by kneejerk reactions to Ed Balls having the gall to point out that that note was meant to be a joke (of course it was meant to be a joke as even David Cameron knows. Whether it was a funny joke is a different matter) or to David Cameron forgetting what day the election was on.

And if power in this country isn’t determined through discussion and disagreements over ideas the election is also making it abundantly clear how many other individuals, groups and forces do exert an influence on the whole process. Newspapers pursue an openly partisan agenda. The tabloids are of course the worst offenders, bombarding their readers with propaganda designed to tell them what to think and make them vote for the party that will best serve the interests of the moguls who run them. But even the broadsheets openly take sides in a way that would be unthinkable in the Netherlands, where I lived for fifteen years. And then there are of course the comedians, columnists, the Twitterati who’ve been courted, attacked or ostentatiously ignored over the last few weeks and who undoubtedly exert at least some subtle influence over the ways their followers and readers think.

Finally, and I believe, exerting the biggest influence of all over the political process are the various means by which everybody concerned is trying to predict everybody else’s behaviour. First there are the focus groups that the parties employ to try to devise tactics to achieve a maximal increase in their share of the vote for minimal effort (and if you want a powerful argument for just how pernicious a force focus groups are for modern democracy I highly recommend the Century of the Self films by Adam Curtis). Then there is the unending succession of polls, which seem to have arrived with daily frequency throughout the entire time the coalition has been in power, polls that I find deeply irritating and strangely addictive at the same time.

The first problem with our obsession with polling as I see it is that the polls themselves can play a big role in setting the terms of the debate through the types of questions they ask. A question like “which party do you trust more to manage the economy?”, when asked as often as it is cannot but reinforce the idea that the “economy” is the one issue above all others that we should be most concerned about. Asking the question “which leader do you think would make a better Prime Minister?” in no small way contributes to the increasingly presidential style of our politics. But an even bigger problem with the polls ask is what happens when everybody constantly knows – or at least believes they know – exactly how much support each party can count on. That, together with the constant analysis of the polls in the press, is arguably the biggest reason that the progress of all our political parties has become deadlocked and has barely shifted in weeks. Having arrived at what seems to be some sort of natural balance none of the parties are willing to take any more than the most minimal risks to upset that balance for fear that their opponents will be the ones to gain by it.

To return to my metaphor of the election as a game he whole thing reminds me very much of a very public chess match I once saw by the seaside in Greece. Two old men were playing on one of those enormous boards where the pieces are all waist high, surrounded by groups of other old men shouting them on as if they were at a football match and giving warnings about both players’ game plan. When spectators are shouting “Watch out for the bishop!” and “He’s three moves from checkmate!” it’s no wonder that the players become agitated – as these two men most certainly did – and no wonder that our politicians are doing the equivalent of moving their kings back and forth behind a solid row of pawns waiting for their opponents to make a mistake.

I can’t help wondering what Athenian democracy would have looked like if the Classical Greeks had had opinion polls. They didn’t need them, of course, because theirs was a direct democracy where citizens voted themselves on the issues of the day, with civic magistracies filled randomly by a sort of lottery, and only a few elections for the most important positions. They did, however, still have politicians, men who were more active than others in steering the course of policy. If ComRes or Ipsos Mori had been around at the time of the Persian Wars then Themistokles would still have been deliberating as to whether he should cautiously propose evacuating the city as the Persians poured over the walls and massacred the citizens. The story of what did actually happen is in Herodotus (or 300: Rise of an Empire presumably. I haven’t seen it) but even without knowing the story I think you can get my point.

Imagine how exciting the current UK election would be if polling was prohibited for the period after parliament has been dissolved. We might then have even less of an idea than we do now what next Friday holds in store for us. But we’d probably find our politicians were taking the risks that would give us a more decisive result than the one we’re almost certainly facing. Having only briefly mentioned the ancient world here, in a future blog post I want to talk a bit more about the nature of power and influence and in particular why working out who had power is one of the biggest problems and most controversial issues for understanding Roman Greece.

I’m actually in Greece at the moment, as I mentioned near the beginning of this piece. I will be travelling around over the next week visiting some sites and museums for my project.  I’m also hoping to find time to write some shorter posts about some of the things I see and will definitely be posting some photos on Twitter. So watch this space!

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