James Kirkup

What journalists know, but can never admit: election campaigns don’t matter

What journalists know, but can never admit: election campaigns don't matter
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I love election days.  Some of that is just the simple, wondrous glee that democracy deserves but doesn't get enough of.  Really, whatever its flaws and frailties, a collectively-agreed and universally accepted set of essentially voluntary arrangements where we all get a say on hiring and firing our rulers is pretty damn glorious.   To hell with cynicism: whatever you think of your local candidates or the political class as a whole, the simple act of voting is great, just great. We should remember - and say - that more often. 

But my enjoyment of polling day goes beyond lofty stuff like that. I've just emerged from 20 years as a full-time journalist, most of it spent doing politics.  For political hacks, polling day is an unofficial holiday. Politicians don't really do any politics on polling day, because perfectly sensible legal restrictions limit what we can say about an election in progress, and because the only things people really care about (the results) aren't clear until deep into the night or even the following morning, so there's no real point in doing much work on the day.  

Of course, you can, if you’re keen, still bother all your contacts to see what they think the results will be, but they're usually in the dark too. I still have a little file of notes on Election Day chats with Cabinet-level Tories in 2015, all of whom expected to lose office and several of whom angrily deprecated the Cameron campaign. Some of them popped up on TV in the following days saying they'd always been confident in Dave’s ability to deliver.   

But on the whole, best not to bother.  Go in late, have a nice lunch (rather rarer these days than the trade’s reputation suggests), and think about something other than politics. (This is, of course, what most people do on quiet days, and hacks should do more to behave and think like the people they write for.)

I suspect most people enjoy polling day because they can safely turn on the radio or TV or log on safely, with no fear of being assaulted with excitements and analysis, with journalists earnestly telling them that something someone has said or done is really, really important, possibly more important than the last important thing.   

None of this is to say that political journalism isn't important.  I wouldn't have spent years of my life doing it if I didn't think it mattered.  But, from the luxurious position of watching an election without trying to cover it (the last time I was in this position was 1997) I'm free to say something that always troubled me about campaign reporting: it doesn't matter anywhere near as much as we say it does. 

Elections, like other big set-piece events, have grown disproportionately in media terms. Because they're happening, journalists feel obliged to pile more and more scarce resources into covering them, offering more and more analysis and interpretation. And the thing about covering something is that by doing so, you make a judgement, and statement. You're saying it matters, it's important. Whether consciously or not, hacks (who love this stuff, and rightly so) covering elections proceed on the basis that the things they're covering matter. With that assumption in place, all that remains is deciding exactly how important they are, and why. Arguing that something doesn't really matter isn't an option. Really, when was the last time you read a correspondent’s analysis that said 'that story you've just read or heard - forget it. It won't make any difference to anything.'

This general election is especially prone to this vice.  Most of the people covering it know that the national-level messaging they focus on makes no material difference to the outcome: the Conservatives will win. The stuff that matters more (turnout and organisation, especially at regional and seat level) is difficult to see and boring to report. So we’re left with national-level politicians doing and saying things that don't really matter. 

Diane Abbott can't add up? Doesn't matter: voters have already either decided Labour is hopeless, or to stick with the party anyway. Theresa May is rude about the EU? Doesn't matter. If you think Brexit is a disaster, it confirms your horror. If you don't, it's a Tory leader bashing Brussels: dog bites man. This is true in Brussels too: EU politicians, even commissioners, have fought elections too, remember. Brexit will go just as well/badly as it would have without Mrs May’s moment. What happens on the campaign trail stays on the campaign trail.

It’s always been this way.  Election sensations attract so much attention because they’re a break from the grinding tedium of what 'campaigning' actually involves: knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, repeating the same words over and over again – stuff we all hate reporting. When John Prescott punches a voter, Sharon Storer berates Tony Blair, when Neil Kinnock gives an awful speech in Sheffield, or Michael Fallon makes a crass remark about Ed Miliband and his brother, these things grab attention and occupy bored journalists, and maybe even stick in the memory as a result.  But change voters’ minds?  Change election results?  I think not.

Before June 8 finally arrives, there will be more of these moments: gaffes, attacks, leaks and rows. All will be presented as exciting and possibly even unprecedented: a new low, a break with convention, a rubicon crossed.  They won't matter.  

Yet if your job is to write or talk about politics for an organisation that's decided to devote your time and its money to covering this election, that's a difficult thing to say.  Hence all those acres of discussion about the meaning and significance of things that have little of either.  And there's still more than a month to go until we get the news that actually matters, that most people will actually register: the result.  

So today, sit back, think of the hacks being spared the ordeal of analysing the irrelevant, and -- in the words of one of our great poets - enjoy the silence. 

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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