In the confusion of today’s cynical politics, where scandal and lies seem to be priced in, nothing is ever achieved
From the politicians who reluctantly voted for it, to the millions who must now make a choice and cast their vote, everybody surely knows it: this is a very, very weird election. I mean that not just in terms of the borderline absurd timing, nor the sense that it will not resolve the fundamentals of Brexit, but much deeper tensions and contradictions.
Large chunks of the public seem weary, and ill-disposed to both main parties; to ask a lot of people who they might vote for is to invite long sighs and eye-rolls, and suggestions that the whole thing is ridiculous. It has always been the case that when politicians, party activists and the media dissolve in excitement and passion, most people tend to keep their distance. But now the gap is so big, and political outcomes seemingly so random, that there is a resulting sense of big events happening almost by accident.
The fact that the media carries on with rituals unchanged in 50 years – identify the target seats! Bring on the psephologists! Do 10-second vox pops! – only compounds the oddness. The best example of the absurdity of what passes for the national conversation is the attention still paid to opinion polling: on Sunday, reports suggested the Tories were variously leading Labour by eight, 16 and 12 percentage points. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage was on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show again. At the same time, the stakes could not be higher: one way or another, it’s clear that this contest will mark a historic tipping point not just for politics, but the future of the country.
What is it all actually about? As in 2017, there are at least three elections going on at once: the contest about Brexit – and the ludicrous idea that we will soon “get it done” – conceived by the Tories and pounced on by the Liberal Democrats; Labour’s great debate about austerity and inequality – and the mixture of both, woven through with the question of independence, defining the battle in Scotland, and centred on the Scottish National party.
The extent to which the public buys into these narratives is open to question: three years of anticlimactic pantomime over Brexit have only increased people’s distance from politics, and 40-odd years of dealignment and waning loyalties apparently mean that nearly half of us might switch to a different party from the one we backed in 2017. Thanks to our creaking electoral system, support for the newly energised Lib Dems, the Brexit party and the Greens could have no end of unforeseen consequences, or very few at all. All that is certain is that those staunchly partisan voices that echo around social media are in a small, somewhat freakish minority: far more people are politically on the move, almost constantly.
Thanks to the means we now use to communicate, what is going on is probably more complicated still. Thousands – millions? – of personalised micro-campaigns are already unfolding on people’s social media feeds, defined by many forces and voices way beyond the party machines and the traditional media, and often beyond anyone’s control.
Two years ago, a big part of Theresa May’s undoing was the way that an avalanche of mocking memes quickly rendered her a laughing stock; similar things will happen this time, but it is not yet clear who they will affect, and how. Twitter may have suddenly banned political advertising, but that probably means there is all the more reason for plenty of actors to use the subterfuge of bots, fake accounts, and all the rest. We know that CTF Partners, the lobbying firm run by Boris Johnson’s confidant Lynton Crosby, was recently caught overseeing pro-Brexit Facebook ads purporting to be the work of grassroots activists. We know too that the Conservative party has hired people closely connected to CTF, well versed in the most slippery online campaigning techniques.
This weekend brought the unsurprising news that Facebook’s policy of allowing lies in political adverts will apply to the UK, which will obviously suit plenty of people just fine. It’s clear that the Tories are prepared to use falsehoods in their online campaigning: in September, they put ads on Facebook presenting a BBC report about £14bn of schools funding as if it was a fact, when the report in question actually criticised the figure’s credibility. The fines levied on the official leave campaign for funding breaches related to online activity and sending thousands of people unsolicited text messages shine unflattering light on the presence of many of its former high-ups – including, obviously, the prime minister – at the heart of government (we now know that a file relating to the former transgression was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service last month). And before anyone on the left starts feeling too smug, let us at least acknowledge that there are those who make the case for Labour online – some closely connected to the party machine – who have a somewhat loose relationship with fact, and a tendency to pursue their objectives using nastiness and misinformation.
Bluntly put, it is not the 20th century any more, and that is not just about online dirty tricks, but people’s very understanding of what an election means. The occasions when an election could thrash out national differences, decide a victor and then accord them the stability and space to implement their programme belong to another age, along with Thatcher, Churchill, Attlee and the rest. The accelerated, saturated culture we now live in fosters so much irreverence and cynicism that the very idea of people and parties claiming they have all-encompassing solutions to the country’s problems can easily look absurd, something Boris Johnson – like Donald Trump – seems to consciously trade on, pushing politics towards the absurd as a matter of conscious strategy.
This isn’t to say that seriously radical intentions such as those of the reinvented Labour party are illegitimate, nor that all kind of unfairnesses and inequalities are in dire need of those kind of answers. But in the digital age, capitalism has constructed ways of blindsiding its opponents and distracting the public at large way beyond the old opiates of the masses, and it is an onerous task to even begin to shift them.
Clearly, the internet has political benefits that suit progressive people and parties, from the ease of crowdfunding, through the way that activists can quickly form networks, to information channels that can bypass the orthodox – and often rightwing – media. But at the current stage of the online world’s evolution, these things seem to be constantly overshadowed by the way that the cacophony hosted by the big platforms scrambles meanings, promotes the worst kind of discourse, and sows confusion. This is less about messages than the medium: once politics moves online, it tends to operate in a context of disbelief, cynicism and the kind of endless tribal warfare that rarely achieves any resolution. No one really wins.
In the 21st century’s political culture, few stories develop any traction, and scandal and lies almost seem to be priced in to people’s expectations. As Trump and Johnson prove, politics may now be more about camp, performance and the imperative to crash around the right online platforms than the idea of actually achieving anything. And nothing is ever concluded. What transpires on Friday 13 December will have a big influence on the future. But the day after, the usual noise and confusion will resume, as our politics continues to evolve in ways we are only just beginning to understand.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist