Bernard Trafford: I'm excited about democracy - but not about the dismal, negative politicking

Journal columnist and Newcastle headteacher Bernard Trafford on why he wants to enjoy the election campaign, but just can't

Prime Minister David Cameron is interview by Jeremy Paxman (right)
Prime Minister David Cameron is interview by Jeremy Paxman (right)

And… they’re off. The race is on. Five weeks today the country will vote for the next government, coalition, unholy alliance, or downright fudge.

The media tell us it’s going to be the most exciting election in decades.

They have a point: with no clear water between the two major parties; the Scot Nats and Ukip threaten to hold the balance of power; even the Ulster Unionists, the Greens and Plaid Cymru may for the first time steer national policy by lending their weight to a minority government (or by withholding it).

The tired old two-horse race has become a thing of the past. All the old certainties are gone. It should be an election when everyone’s vote will really count. Surely that could be exciting?

There are many constituencies (key marginals) where a swing of 1% or less would change a hold to a loss: so just a small shift to a minor party such as Ukip could cause a major upset to the big beasts.

What of the Lib Dems? Are they doomed to decades in the wilderness? They seized their chance of sharing power in 2010 but have lost support as a result.

The pundits and forecasters will be in overdrive for the next five weeks, wielding swingometers and hopping up and down on politically coloured UK maps. That really should be exciting, shouldn’t it?

Sadly, I find the mud-slinging and point-scoring more depressing than exciting. Even this week, as they launch their campaigns, there’s precious little sign of the parties’ articulating a genuine vision for the country.

Politicians rubbish their rivals’ policies as extravagant, unworkable, reviving class war, privatisation by stealth, taxing the rich, taxing the squeezed middle, taxing the poor, taxing everyone. But I hear little intelligent debate.

Tonight sees the seven-way political debate that Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on. Will that furnish us with real debate, some true excitement? Maybe.

Cameron resolutely declined a head-to-head with his rival, Ed Milliband. Like most people, I thought he was politically unwise to avoid it. Having watched the two of them with Jeremy Paxman last week, though, I’ve a feeling he was right after all.

Both suffered in last week’s format. With the studio audience both leaders gave a fair impression of being open, listening and really wanting to help the people in the room.

The individual interviews with Paxo, by contrast, were dismal, and far from exciting: not the interviewees’ fault. Paxman was full of himself, discomfiting Cameron with an opening salvo about the 700,000 people on zero-hours contracts: but could you even call it a debate (or truly an interview)? Paxman constantly reiterated the same question, hectoring his victim more and more loudly. It was rude and overbearing, not exciting.

A straight answer might have extricated the PM from that fix: but it was a complex question masquerading as simple. Zero-hours contracts encompass all kinds of part-time employment: most are legitimate, but others are used to exploit workers. Paxman sprung a trap, asking a question on which Cameron floundered, and in response became even more obnoxious than usual.

Miliband fared similarly. Paxo went for the jugular, accusing him of shafting his brother and chipping away at the relations between them. Ed fended him off pretty well: but it didn’t move the election debate forward. And it wasn’t exciting.

Did I say five weeks? It will feel longer. Meanwhile, anything will be better than the news channels and papers. Walking in the Cheviots will help. On Sunday evenings, Poldark still smoulders along (I’m not going there again!) and I’ve saved up recorded episodes of Channel 4’s rival Sunday show, Indian Summers.

Actually, I’m more likely to read a book.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited about democracy. It’s the dismal, negative politicking that kills the excitement for me.

I wish all those commentators joy of it: but, for all their enthusiasm, I fear they’ll leave me cold.


Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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