Politics Isn’t Working: The Dumbed Down Election

Channel 4

Observer columnist Nick Cohen looks at the biggest story of the election: the likely refusal of a third of the electorate to vote. Politicians from all parties say apathy is their number one enemy, but, he argues, it is largely their fault.

“Populism isn’t popular,” he argues as he examines the failure of the political class to perform the elementary task of persuading citizens to visit polling stations. “The public has realised that opinion polls and focus groups aren’t there to allow voters to speak to power but manipulate and trick them.”
Cohen’s journey goes to the working-class slums of Sunderland, where scarcely anyone believes that any party will improve the condition of the poor. Only 1.5% of the electorate there turned out to vote in the last European Elections. More voted to choose the winner of Big Brother.

He visits the pollsters’ nirvana of Worcestershire in the heart of Middle England, and goes to the centre of the campaign in London. On the way he looks at the big issues no one wants to discuss: Global warming, the coming nuclear arms race and the chasm opening between rich and poor. Cohen believes political debate has been skewed to create noisy competition over arguably slight policy differences. There is, he concludes, a stultifying consensus. “Whoever you vote for, privatisation will continue, the inequality will grow and civil liberties will be assaulted. Our “choice” is illusory.”

There are perils in becoming cynical about the electoral process. If we don’t take part in the process, what right have we to complain about the result? But Cohen thinks it is understandable. “When British democracy has become so banal it must address the electorate in baby talk, then perhaps cynicism is a principled position,” he declares.

Channel 4 ▪ TX June 2001 ▪ 1 x 60 min
Produced and Directed by Dollan Cannell