Election campaigns were exciting and creative but not any more

I do remember stories of voters at the God-help-them age having their hands guided in the ballot booth, writes Terry Prone
Election campaigns were exciting and creative but not any more

GOD be with the days when political parties used to send vehicles to take you to the polling booth. Lot to be said for that approach. From the political party’s point of view, it delivered grateful voters direct to the point of purchase. From the voters’ point of view, it meant mobility even if your car was sick, which mine currently is, although I admit if it’s still sick on polling day, its illness may be and hopefully is terminal.

Not that I am suggesting any principled citizen in this country would ever vote for a party simply because they sent a car to take them to the polling station. Perish the thought. As if, like. I do remember stories, though, of voters at the God-help-them age having their hands guided in the ballot booth. It could never happen today, of course. That’s the problem with today’s elections. No excitement to them at all.

Some of us look back with misty-eyed nostalgia to the time of a Fianna Fáiler who was close to Charlie Haughey and who was worried about the impact on the upcoming election of revelations due to emerge on that night’s Seven Days. (Calm down, children, that was the precursor to Prime Time.) This stalwart either threw or caused to have thrown a bicycle into a power station on the north side of Dublin in order to deprive the relevant constituency of the power to fire up their tellies and see what he didn’t want them to see.

There’s entrepreneurship and innovation for you. You don’t see much of it around in modern elections. It’s been replaced by a reverence for social media that, in its passionate conviction based on damn all evidence, is close to a new religion. Other than that misplaced enthusiasm, this election is kind of same old, same old, although it did surprise me to see Micheál Martin creeping further up the road to the benighted outpost where I live. I cannot remember a political leader ever creeping so far.

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In poster form. Posters of Enda Kenny did appear in the main street of the local village, all right, last time around, but usually along with the candidate. With Micheál, it’s just him. Suited and tied and dapper, but as unexpected in Portrane as a well-groomed duck-billed platypus. It has to be assumed that the FF local candidate is relying on Micheál’s being a single transferrable suit, tie and dapper.

Driving to work the morning after the election was called, I waved in a pluralist way at all the brave activists putting up those posters. The unsung heroes of democracy, those ladder climbers, especially since, where I live, Storm Jacob or whatever first-named gale is next due carries the possibility of transporting them and their ladder to Crossmolina at the drop of a gust.

The team putting up the Fine Gael posters actually pointed to their posters, to the line about keeping the recovery going. Talk about being on message. All of them seemed to be enjoying themselves. Maybe it’s due to the fun of a one-day job involving a good view, whereas the poor canvassers are going to be out in their respectable but casual clothes, taking dog’s abuse about their party.

One canvasser, arriving at my door at the weekend, held back her spiel about the candidate long enough to ask me what my issues were. “How do you mean?” I asked. “Well, what are the issues that would make you vote for a candidate — is it the health service, the water charges, USC?”

It didn’t seem kind to tell her that a) the health service is like the Chinese economy; way too big for her candidate to make a difference to it, b) I agree with the water charges, and c) if they abolished USC, I would happily see the money going to pay for our water. I did say that I would vote for any candidate I trusted to push to make assisted suicide legal. The well-trained canvasser rightly decided to waste no more time on me, thrust a leaflet into my hand and headed for the hills.

Canvassers deserve sympathy but not as much as the rest of us, because, for the next three weeks, we will not be able to escape from the election, short of buying and hiding in that nuclear bunker on sale in the north. That’s because, between you and me, and don’t tell the editor of this newspaper, mainstream media loses its marbles the minute an election is called.

Every broadcasting outfit breaks out the outside broadcast units and their statistics cruncher. It would, of course, suit the TV stations better to obviate that weird three-heartbeat after the studio presenter’s question: “So, Paulyna, an exciting day in Ballyboring?” Paulyna stands there in corpse-like silence while a million people wait, and then goes “Yes, indeed, Douglas.”

Why on earth doesn’t someone cue Paulyna to begin her statement of the bleeding obvious the minute she hears the name “Paulyna” in her ear? We’re time-poor, lads, and you’re supposed to be hi-tech. Get a handle on Paulyna and her colleagues and speed them up.

A general election, in media terms, is a frantic and sustained effort to persuade the public that the election is as interesting as media think it is, which it isn’t.

One of the reasons media is so persuaded of the unputdownable nature of an election is that every presenter, every interviewer and every reporter hopes to be the one to persuade Joan Burton or Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams to face-plant, live on air on some issue. In the interest of truth and transparency, of course. Nothing to do with boosting the rep of the questioner.

All of this is predicated on a notion that the voters are sitting out there, ready to have their minds radically changed by that face-plant. I’m not saying that we don’t love on-air errors. We do. We truly do. We are consoled to know that, in the event of missing them during the day, they’ll get rounded up and played for us in the evening by Mary Wilson, Matt Cooper, and George Hook.

But enjoying public evidence of the foot-in-mouth disease prevalent in any election is not the same as deciding against a local candidate on the basis that one of their colleagues in some other county needs their head looked at. It’s a misconception that suits us in media because it gives better soundbite, but examples of verbal blunders significantly altering the outcome of an election would be a bit thin on the ground.

Nearly as thin on the ground as proof that a party leader, whether popular or unpopular, influences the outcome of an election. This will, of course, not prevent any party which does badly in the upcoming fracas from immediately turfing their party leader.

In which context, and well in advance of it happening, a word of warning to the members of political parties that do badly. The problem about the leadership-purge approach is that it’s a bit like Chinese takeaway. You feel the need for another within an amazingly short period of time.

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