Tuesday, May 11, 2010...12:00 pm

“The people have spoken – we’re just not sure what they’ve said”

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What went wrong with last week’s election?

In media terms, clearly, it was a lack of narrative.

How could the media make sense of the voting patterns in 2010? Massive swings to the Tories in unexpected seats, solid swings away from Labour in others. But swinging to where? Sometimes to Tory, sometimes to Labour, sometimes to LibDem, once to Green. Often to nowhere in particular. And what about the postcode lottery that decided whether LibDems would keep or lose their seats.

It must have been frustrating for the political hacks – which perhaps explains Jeremy Paxman’s Cheeky Girls jibe to just-defeated Lembit Opik. Why else would a senior media commentator talk about the effect of a politician’s colourful, but hardly scandalous, private life on his vote, unless there was nothing to make sense of in political terms?

Things used to be so different.

The stand-out elections of the past three decades have had a story that the media could easily tell. The Thatcher victory in 1979 was all about a rejection of the kind of corporate statist consensus that had turned the 1970s into, well, the 1970s – strikes, economic stagnation, bad fashion and faulty cars.

1983 was a landslide khaki election that saw vast swathes of the UK’s political map turn blue – as well as the arrival of a third force (actually a fourth force) in the form of the SDP that promised, but never succeeded, to break the mould of British politics. Viewers (including me) watched, enthralled or horrified according to taste, as Labour big beasts were felled one after another – Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, er, William Rodgers – and Thatcherism dominated the ’80s political landscape.

The 1987 election was a bit boring, but 1992 was a knife-edge contest with elements of Greek tragedy as an over-confident Labour was brought low by hubris and an ill-judged party rally that looked too much like a victory celebration for its own good.

Five more years of mess, sleaze and Euroscepticism finished that. And paved the way for the New Labour story. A massive, sweeping victory that saw Tory Big Beasts brought low one after another. The Stephen Twigg moment, replayed time and again on TV; colour-coded computer graphics showing the massive swing from Tory to Labour in easy-to-digest form; the dawning of a new era in British politics.

And don’t forget the 1989 European Elections. The first contest in which Margaret Thatcher actually lost the nation’s support also featured the surprise rise of the Green Party. Seat after seat was shown with an animated graphic of the Green vote shooting up from nothing to 10%, 15% or 20% , eclipsing the newly formed Liberal Democrats and promising (falsely) to break the mould of third-party politics.

But things have been going wrong for a while in media elections. 2001 more or less saw a replay of 1997 with a bit less enthusiasm, but 2005 was a muddle. Fewer people were keen on Labour, especially after Iraq, but not so many were keen on the Tories, who didn’t really seem to know who they were, except they weren’t Labour.

The media did have some success showing what was going on, though. A very good digital three-way swingometer on the BBC showed that LibDem support was moving rather than growing – shifting into Labour marginals but moving out of Conservative ones. And I liked this boardgame-style drinking game from the Guardian that aimed to help election revellers keep track of the results – a sort of boozeometer.

It was an interesting harbinger of the election to come, but even the three-way swingometer has failed us this time around. If 2010 told us one thing, it was that simple narrative struggle of many elections in recent history has broken down.

I foolishly wrote that whoever you vote for, government wins. Not, it seems, in this case. The voting public has not only stuck two fingers up at politicians (here’s your result – now what are you going to do about it, you corrupt losers?), but also in some ways to the media.

Though the current shenanigans are a media wet-dream (Clegg’s talking to Cameron! Brown has resigned! Clegg’s talking to Brown! Which seats could the LibDems get in cabinet? What about a Rainbow Coalition?), it’s become clear that telling the story of the election – and hence telling the story of the people who vote in it – is much less simple than it used to be.

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