The Synthetic, Unimaginative and Ultimately Forgettable Politics of the X Factor Generation

The rules of electioneering have changed little in the last 30 years. They were begun by Margaret Thatcher, finessed by Tony Blair and brought to sterile perfection by David Cameron.

The script is simple: do everything you can to exploit your opponent's weakness and avoid anything which could damage your  campaign.

And the best medium through which to achieve this is television.

TV not only has the advantage of attracting the largest audiences but it offers the least opportunity for error, blunder and scrutiny.

Pesky newspaper journalists, particularly those from papers with opposing political agendas, are kept at arm's length. David Cameron has no more allowed the Daily Mirror near his campaign than Ed Miliband has sought to include the Sun.

Miliband and Cameron are both conducting campaigns which require the permanent wearing of a safety harness and an absurd degree of sanitation

This cordon sanitaire started to emerge during the 2010 election. Even in 2005 the main political parties hosted near daily press conferences and allowed all newspaper journalists, regardless of the affiliation of their title, to follow the leaders around on battle buses.

Now only the Lib Dems are offering the battle bus (at an extortionate £750 a day) and the occasional press conference with Nick Clegg, whose willingness to be open is regarded as a sign of desperation rather than an acknowledgement that a healthy democracy relies, in part, on media scrutiny.

By contrast, Miliband and Cameron are both conducting campaigns which require the permanent wearing of a safety harness and an absurd degree of sanitation.

The travelling media accompanying both leaders is restricted to the main broadcasters, the Press Association and a carefully selected handful of print/online journalists.

the two main political parties have decided on a strategy which by its very nature further alienates the electorate

The walkabouts are carefully choreographed, the stump speeches delivered to invited audiences, usually activists, and questions are only taken from friendly papers.

This is politics for the X Factor generation: synthetic, unimaginative and ultimately forgettable. It has also, like the talent show, become stale with familiarity. Yet what makes this approach all the more incomprehensible is that the two main political parties have decided on a strategy which by its very nature further alienates an electorate already disenchanted with Westminster and its current political class.

(It is also, incidentally, one of the reasons we have seen many frontbenchers struggle in TV interviews. Having failed to undergo the apprenticeship of regular press conferences, they find themselves without the skills needed to survive even the mildest of grillings.)

The Tories were quick to label the lively Challengers TV debate featuring Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood as a glimpse of the chaos which would ensue should there be a Labour-led administration, supported by the SNP.

An alternative interpretation would suggest viewers might have enjoyed seeing five politicians debating forcefully -- and with the exception of Farage -- generally politely, about the issues affecting the country.

By his absence David Cameron sought to portray himself as a presidential candidate above this rabble, but many will conclude that all he achieved was to distance himself further from an electorate which regards him as somewhat haughty and disdainful.

Conversely, Miliband, who took a gamble by agreeing to the debate, showed for perhaps the first time in the campaign, that he was both a credible leader in waiting but also willing to defend his arguments in the public realm.

This is not to say the Conservatives are still not in pole position. One Cabinet minister told me that the so-called crossover -- the moment when they take an insurmountable lead -- was still to happen and for it not to do so would "defy the laws of every Western democracy" which rewards the party that has best managed the economy with power.

At the weekend Cameron said he was willing to venture from his cocoon of stage-managed safety and undertake more John Major-style campaign stops.

It may be too late for him to redeem his reputation for aloofness, but it would inject some earthiness into a dispiritingly distant general election. 

Jason Beattie is Political Editor of the Daily Mirror.

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About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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