General Election 2015: High, lows, and moments of confusion

It’s hard to believe that the UK General Election campaign came to an end just seven days ago. Having finally recovered from pulling the all-nighter to end all all-nighters, it’s time to reflect on the campaign. Whilst there are plenty of serious debates to be had, Amy Smith and I felt we would try to make light (and a little sense of) some of the campaign’s more interesting events. Here is a little discussion of the campaign moments that made us smile, or shake our heads in collective confusion.

Milibrand

Ellen: When Miliband was pictured leaving Brand’s flat and the press speculated there could be an endorsement, I laughed and told everyone that would never happen. Then it did. Brand’s ‘anti-voting’ position was never as rigid as the press reported, and he’d always liked Miliband, but I was still blown away. I think this definitely had more potential to damage Brand than Miliband, whatever the press say. Many of Brand’s fans support the Green Party, and he’s much closer to them ideologically. For me, the most interesting thing about the whole episode is the debate over whether Miliband should have ‘gone to’ Brand. Does this demonstrate the trivialisation of elections, or a bold willingness to reach out to Brand’s nine million followers? Cameron called Brand a joke…well, even if it made no difference, at least it showed that Miliband can take a joke!

 Amy: I agree with you that the point of interest here is the debate about whether Miliband was right or wrong to go to Brand. It speaks to a larger tension between older and newer forms of social media and did spark some discussion in the press along these lines. Both sides seemed to accept that this was an attempt by Labour to reach that notoriously homogenous, disengaged group known as ‘the youth’ (note: they are not homogenous and disengaged). The argument seemed to be divided into whether Miliband was doing the right thing because he was, at least, making an attempt to reach the youth through Brand’s social media following, or whether attempting to reach the youth was a pointless exercise. Whatever the reality, The Sun has claimed victory in the phony war between traditional and newer media, clearly ignoring the nuances of intermedia dependency even as it is displayed on the very same webpage (see below).

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Ed Miliband: sex symbol or North London geek?

 Amy: The press had something of a crisis over how to represent Ed Miliband. Was he the “North London geek”, as branded by Jeremy Paxman in the ‘Battle for Number 10’, unable to eat a bacon sandwich competently and hence unable to run the country competently? Or was he ladies’ man, with a “Very Tangled Love Life”? The Daily Mail article did it’s very best to perpetuate the latter, but it read like a very boring account of the relationship histories of most people in modern Britain. The alternate headline made up in the PhD office, “Man has relationships with women he meets at university and through mutual friends before marrying his wife”, seemed more accurate if less sensational.

 Ellen: Our headline is definitely better. The ‘North London geek’ thing particularly intrigued me. We definitely saw Miliband play up to the ‘geek’ label more afterwards, talking more about his favourite video games and baseball teams in interviews. Paxman definitely didn’t mean it as a compliment, Charlie Brooker even speculated that unnecessarily adding ‘North London’ was an anti-Semitic dig, but Miliband tried to reclaim the geek label and use it to his advantage. I think that this was probably the right move; better to admit to having obscure interests than to forget which football team you ‘support’.

 Joey Essex

 Ellen:  Joey Essex interviewed Miliband, Clegg and Farage for his ITV2 special ‘Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Sayin?!’ He didn’t vote in 2010, and was on a mission to learn more about politics so that he could this time. Whilst the programme was (of course) pretty silly, the ability of some of Essex’s interviewees to relate to him demonstrated positive qualities in them. Anyone who knows Joey’s history must’ve felt a little ‘emosh’ seeing Nick Clegg talking to him about improving mental health care.

Meeting ‘ordinary celebrities’ is becoming yet another proxy for meeting ‘ordinary voters’, but I still wish Cameron had become involved. Joey did vote, after going to the wrong polling station, but we don’t know who for. I’d love to know if he got confused that Miliband, Farage and ‘Nick Legg’ weren’t actually on the ballot papers. Joey Essex general election pundit, Amy, what are YOU sayin’?

Amy: Well, where to begin? Essex’s programme naturally drew a lot of media attention and was much discussed on social media. It fits the trope of engaging ‘the youth’, although perhaps targeting a different demographic to that of the Brand interviews (ergo, they are not one homogenous group). It therefore helped to perpetuate ‘the engagement of young people in politics’ as a narrative throughout the campaign. Perhaps because of this, most parties wanted to become involved with his investigations, and took his slip-ups in good humour (the Lib Dems changing their website to feature the ‘Liberal Democats’ was a personal highlight). And who knows, maybe Essex’s programme did help some to understand the election and decide who to vote for. I think there’s probably a thesis in that, Ellen…

 #Milifandom (and #Cameronettes?)

Ellen: Whilst I feel like some of the photoshopped images of Ed Miliband’s face on semi-naked models will haunt my dreams forever, #Milifandom raised some interesting questions about participation. I was happy to see its founder, Abby, hitting back at journalists who saw her enthusiasm as childish, arguing that she had started #Milifandom as a response to media attacks on Miliband. I hope that she and other Milifans haven’t become totally despondent about politics before they can even vote.

Amy: I was overjoyed at the emergence of #Milifandom. After all the talk of youth participation here were some youth’s actually participating. Using a social media platform to express not only love but reasoned arguments for supporting Ed Miliband, it turned out that they were both knowledgeable and passionate. Obviously, there were some sceptics, with fandoms usually associated with 1D-obsessed teenage girls. Nevertheless, in #Milifandom we saw many of the traits that the old guard lament as lost in young people, and the wonderful thing was that it was organically created in a new media logic understood by its core audience and mistrusted by older generations. A timeless recipe really.

I was confused at the emergence of #Cameronettes. The Telegraph tried to clear it up, but in fact made me more concerned. Was it created by CCHQ, a teenage girl, a twenty-something male student, or a twenty-something male student masquerading as teenage girl? I stopped collecting data on this quite quickly basically because I couldn’t cope.

The ‘biased’ BBC

Amy: This also had me confused consistently. In my collection of data from Twitter and Facebook, I alternately learned that the BBC was left-wing/right-wing (delete as appropriate) and it was made clear that the Beeb was not giving enough airtime to UKIP, the Conservatives, UKIP, Labour, or UKIP. Even their debate audiences, as Nigel Farage brought to our attention, seemed to be unfairly weighted. Yet, the BBC is heavily regulated to ensure it gives even coverage to all parties, based on their size, and – as I found out by talking to their journalists – they have to produce graphs at the end of every week to prove it. So they are at least technically unbiased, then. Problem-solved. I must also give special mention to BBC Breakfast’s election coverage involving the ‘Travelling Sofa’ and the ‘Steph-o-meter’™, which kept me amused during many an early start. Kudos, Breakfast team.

Ellen: The BBC definitely cannot win. For the Conservatives, accusing the BBC of bias is a win-win, undermining negative coverage of them but possibly more importantly undermining the authority of the BBC itself. This is crucial when you plan to appoint a culture secretary who thinks that the license fee is ‘unsustainable’. As for UKIP, for all the involvement of comedians in this campaign its funniest moment was definitely still Farage attacking the audience at the Challengers’ Debate. How not to win people over 101.

The “selfie election”. Or was it the “social media election”?

Amy: Thesis-wise I was absolutely thrilled the media began to give various monikers to the election – it fits right in with my introductory chapter. However, both of the prominent ones given above are questionable. No-one can argue that selfies were not in abundance, but calling this campaign the “selfie election” refers to a derivative of a specific use of media, rather than having campaign activities aligned to a media platform, such as in “the television election” or “the internet election”. The “social media election” does do this, and certainly social media use by politicians, journalists and voters alike was central throughout the campaign. Yet in the aftermath of the vote, left-wing commentators considered that their existence within the social media bubble had led them to believe the outcome of election would be more favourable for them. It clearly wasn’t, so perhaps “the social media” election is somewhat of a misnomer, in terms of the medium’s impact on outcome.

Ellen: I agree. Social media use during campaigns is now obviously necessary, how out of touch would you look if you didn’t use it, but I don’t think it will ever be sufficient to lead a party to victory. Ed Miliband started using Instagram last September, much to the amusement of the press, and it became its own little fascinating bubble of Milifandom before #Milifandom was even a thing. Clearly though, David Cameron’s lack of Instagram, or a selfie with Joey Essex or a bride-to-be and her hens, wasn’t a barrier to electoral success.

And finally, Al Murray…

Al Murray

Al Murray reacts to Nigel Farage’s loss at the South Thanet count.

Advertisements

The Celebrity Election So Far

Before the campaign began, I was interested to see which celebrities would endorse political parties, but I speculated that celebrity involvement in the campaign would go beyond endorsements. It’s fair to say that nine days into the official campaign period, we’ve already seen things I never would have predicted. Who knew we’d have seen more of Joey Essex than we have of some party leaders, and that consequently John Humphreys would be taught the meaning of ‘reem’ on The Today Programme. Let’s take a brief look at the different ways celebrities have formed part of campaign coverage so far.

Martin Freeman’s Choice

          On day one of the official campaign Labour got straight in with an impressive celebrity endorsement, uploading their party political broadcast ‘The Choice’, featuring Martin Freeman (and narrated by David Tennant). Freeman is, of course, the star of the multi-billion grossing Hobbit films and co-star of BBC series Sherlock, which has a huge, and hugely dedicated, fandom. LabourList claim that the video was watched online over a million times in two days, almost 13 times as many views as the Conservative PPB received.[1]

          However, the key to a successful celebrity endorsement is perceived authenticity, which brings problems. The first thing I did after watching the PPB was type ‘Martin Freeman tax’ into Google. Sure enough, within an hour of the PPB being shared on Labour’s social media, the right-wing media backlash had begun. Guido Fawkes was the first to use old stories about Freeman’s partner and Sherlock co-star Amanda Abbington to discredit him.[2] Abbington was declared bankrupt in 2013 after failing to pay a £120,000 tax bill. This, along with the couple’s wealth and their son’s private education, was used to paint Freeman as a champagne socialist who lacks credibility.

          Abbington only made this worse by voicing her support for Freeman on Twitter through sweary anti-Tory hashtags. Whilst she swiftly deleted her #FuckTheTories tweet, the criticism she received overshadowed her attempts to deny claims that she’s a tax dodger and explain that she had now paid all she owed. Fortunately for Freeman, he’s #NotOnTwitter.

           This story now appears to have died down, and Labour have continued to share the PPB on social media in spite of the allegations. Interestingly, most of the criticism of the broadcast I’ve heard has been based on the content, not on the delivery. Viewers on Channel 4’s Gogglebox repeated objections I’d already noticed to Freeman’s repeated use of the word ‘guarantee’ to set out Labour’s promises on the NHS. Ed Miliband has repeatedly said that he wants to be the first leader ‘to under-promise and over-deliver’ – he may need to add to this an avoidance of the word ‘guarantee’, as this seems to generate more suspicion than it does trust. Miliband might be better off using the emphasis Martin Freeman’s video placed on the differing values of the two main parties, at a time when many are struggling to spot the difference.

Eddie Izzard tours the marginals

          Long-time Labour supporter Eddie Izzard’s assistance has taken a different form. As well as appearing at a party rally in Warrington, along with Ben Elton (who criticised Myleene Klass’ comments about the mansion tax) and Coronation Street’s Sally Lindsay, Izzard has been out campaigning alongside Labour candidates in marginal constituencies. So far he’s been out and about in Redditch, Halesowen, Runcorn and Swindon, and given this is the man who ran 43 marathons in 51 days, I don’t doubt he’ll be campaigning in as many marginal seats as possible over the next 29 days.

            By lending his support to individual candidates and their local campaigns as well as the national party, Izzard is taking a different approach. Local news coverage in the seats he’s been to so far has been positive; after years of touring he seems to have local knowledge wherever he goes. He also attracts attention on the campaign trail because of his intention to run for Mayor of London or become an MP in the future, which gives him an added sincerity (or at least, saves him from the cries of hypocrisy thrown at Russell Brand).

Politicising Joey Essex

          Outside of endorsements, the most visible celebrity face of the campaign so far undoubtedly belongs to Joey Essex. I won’t say too much about him now, as I’m sure there’ll be much more to say after Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Saying?! is shown on ITV2. Joey’s been going around interviewing party leaders for this show. He’s already spoken to Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and he’s got David Cameron and Nigel Farage firmly in his sights. The Lib Dems certainly attracted more attention than they would otherwise when Essex came to their press conference and asked why they had a weird name. In honour of Joey’s attention grabbing mistake, the Lib Dem website briefly showed a new ‘Liberal Democats’ logo. Essex also appeared on BBC This Week following the 7-way leaders’ debate, battling with Molly the dog to be the most likable guest.

Image from metro.co.uk

Image from metro.co.uk

Image from independent.co.uk

Image from independent.co.uk

           Party leaders’ willingness to talk to Essex, who famously didn’t know who the Prime Minister was, has attracted debate over whether this represents dumbing down, or potential for engagement. Should we be listening to Joey Essex at election time (or ever)? Owen Jones, who has also spoken to Essex for his upcoming ITV2 special, dismissed criticism of his involvement as ‘snotty’, and argued that he ‘could just try and reach people who only read The Guardian or watch Question Time. But I don’t want to do that – I want to reach people outside the political bubble, who are otherwise disengaged’.[3] I’m looking forward to watching his election special to see what party leaders were willing to say to him; Nick Clegg was pretty frank with Essex about the fact that he’s not going to be the next Prime Minister.

          The Sun’s front page featuring Essex and former The Only Way is Essex co-star Amy Childs demonstrates that it is not only politicians who can use celebrities to push their agenda, media organisations can too. Essex’s comments to The Sun weren’t controversial; he just doesn’t like the ‘childish’ behaviour of MPs and wants them to stop shouting at each other. I can’t help but wonder if this is why Amy Childs was also called on to give her opinion, which was far more contentious and in line with The Sun’s viewpoint. Childs slammed Labour’s proposal of a mansion tax, and criticised her own aunt for having nine children and living on benefits. This is described by The Sun as ‘highlighting the concerns felt by millions of hard-working families’, and Brentwood MP Eric Pickles is quoted saying ‘Amy is completely correct when she says a tough stand must be taken against benefit cheats’.

Sun front page TOWIE The campaign still to come

          I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of Joey Essex and Eddie Izzard, and I’ll be interested to see if Martin Freeman features any further in Labour’s campaign in spite of the criticism. It will be interesting to see whether the Conservatives can bag a significant celebrity endorsement. David Cameron isn’t shying away from celebrity interviews (he graced the cover of Heat magazine last week), and Samantha Cameron is doing her bit, but so far all I’ve seen is Sol Campbell on the campaign trail, and he hasn’t been attracting much attention beyond Twitter.

          Finally, much as Eddie Izzard has been looking fierce in heels and Labour red lipstick, I’ll be looking out for whether the celebrity election continues to be a male-dominated game. Whilst Sally Lindsay supported Labour in Warrington, and Amy Childs, Myleene Klass and Cheryl F-V have had their mansion tax comments used to support or contest Labour party policy, attention has been almost entirely devoted to male celebrities on the campaign trail.

And yes, thanks to Joey Essex, John Humphreys really did learn some new slang.

[1] http://labourlist.org/2015/04/labour-winning-web-wars-as-over-a-million-watch-martin-freeman-election-ad-online/

[2] http://order-order.com/2015/03/30/tax-dodge-shame-of-labour-election-star/#_@/lL1gL84CwtXQ9A [3] https://www.facebook.com/owenjones84/posts/808206602606187