Participant Observers of Elections
There's a lovely piece in the FT Weekend by Matthew Engel, sometime editor of Wisden and a journalist with a anthropologist's eye for the little details and the broad canvas of life in the British Isles – (see also his wonderful Eleven Minutes Late on the British Railway system). He's reported on 7 elections to date, this will be his 8th, and he makes a strong case for getting away from the campaign buses, the billboards, the makeshift tents on College Green and the twitter stream of #election2010. In short, he argues the case for 'meeting, engaging and enthusing' the process as a journalist just as, in large part, successful politicians do with the electorate. He seems very cynical about the ability of new media to engage an already distrustful citizenry.
Some journalists will indeed take to the live action from Downing St, Mildenhall (or wherever else it's being staged), the campaign bus, the photo-op and the set piece speech. Engel, it seems, prefers the notebook and the doorstep. I suspect he'll have a bunch more insight to show for it but it might not run so well on the 10 o'clock news bulletin.
Perhaps there is something resolutely old fashioned about the approach he is proposing for conducting politics during an election and how to cover it as a journalist but…
…the essentials of this kind of politics remain the same: meet, engage, enthuse. And in an alienated society, the need for politicians to make human contact is if anything greater than ever. The masters of this process are often quite unexpected. Birmingham has been a Tory-free zone for a long time now but until 1992 a chunk of it was represented for them by a relaxed, pipe-smoking Thatcher-loathing stockbroker called Anthony Beaumont-Dark who retained the seat, so far as I could see, by having lots of doorstep conversations and talking about the cultivation of clematis and different breeds of dog and never mentioning Her.
As a journalist he gets a cricket followers pleasure from the slowly unfolding action and the opportunity to glimpse the bathetic, pathetic and absurd:
I enjoy seeing ministers who have spent years bossing us around, suddenly confront their own political mortality. I get enraptured by the complex calculations of swing and turnout, as though it were some gargantuan Ashes Test. I adore the majestic silence of polling day itself. Above all, I love the very British rhythms and rituals of election night, the way it parts the grand from their grandeur. That can happen even in triumph: on his night of miracles in 1992, John Major (48,662 votes) had to take the plaudits from his Huntingdon constituents while standing next to Lord Buckethead of the Gremloids Party (107 votes), who did indeed have a bucket on his head.
He ends the article with this proposal:
There is a more direct purpose to my political tourism, aside from whatever pleasure is to be gained from mornings with Brown and dinners with Lamont. Quite simply, there is no better way to get a sense of what is really happening in an election than being out on the ground…
I intend to get out there in that most impenetrable and undiscovered land – deepest Britain – to try to find out just how weird.
I for one would love the opportunity to explore Britain and its people through the lens of a pivotal election. I'll follow his dispatches with great interest.