If there was a winner of Friday night’s Question Time grilling of the party leaders, it was the audience. It was one of the best events of its type I’ve seen – the crowd irreverent and uncowed, unwilling to accept the usual political blather, hacked off and up for a scrap.
It all had a fascinating impact on the politicians. Faced with this 100-strong, grumpy human lie detector they found themselves forced to speak frankly, to admit to mistakes, to (largely) avoid the platitudes and clichés that we’re usually treated to on the campaign trail. And they came across much better as a result – less pompous, less evasive, a bit more like the standard form of the species.
I found this fascinating because for some years now I’ve had a particular view of how politics needs to change. A number of things, including the rise of consumerism and the march of social media, has altered the terms of public engagement.
The lamentable failure of traditional institutions to adapt to modern life has uprooted the traditional order. The state is no longer the all-powerful force it once was. Many people today are considerably less deferential, better informed and engaged, and more sceptical when it comes to politics and politicians, and their capabilities.
The accepted style of modern political communication – which perhaps started with Bill Clinton, was refined by Tony Blair, and began to fray under David Cameron and George Osborne – has run out of road. These guys were masters of the soundbite, of the polished promise that was in reality no such thing. Osborne even had a name for their kind: “The Guild”. They operated to a kind of professional political code: pledge A, which voters liked, when you really intended to deliver B, which they were less keen on; spin the media; control and beguile the national debate. Calculation, misdirection, cynicism.
It doesn’t work any more. Voters are savvy enough to see the wiring, to snuffle out the wee wizard hiding behind the curtain. Political leaders are no longer placed on any kind of pedestal. Quite the opposite.
This all requires a new kind of approach from politicians – something more like the one we saw on Friday night. The theme that emerged over and again in the questioning was that of trust, or the lack of. Jo Swinson was crucified for her ludicrous policy of straightforwardly revoking Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, which promises vast nationalisations and spending increases, was treated with remarkable scepticism. Slippery Boris Johnson was called out on the trust issue in the very first question he faced.
Nicola Sturgeon confirmed for me that she is the most impressive politician in the land. She was frank about her ambitions for a post-election pact with Labour, and throughout her questioning was frank and clear. You could see the audience responding in kind.
This is what we need from today’s politicians. The conversation with the electorate must be one of equals, conducted with respect and honesty. The limitations of government must be acknowledged, and failures more freely admitted to.
Ultimately, if trust in public life is to be restored then it is the politicians, not the voters, who must change.