Monday 24 October 2016

UK election campaign feels like one long transfer deadline day

Dion Fanning

Published 05/04/2015 | 17:03

Football has one redeeming feature: football. There is always another game
Football has one redeeming feature: football. There is always another game

Along with many people who enjoy sport on TV, I will be following the UK election campaign. It began last week in a blur of giddiness and it was tempting to think that politics is football if football was always transfer deadline day.

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Like the reporters who inform us that Nathan Buddle has been spotted at Brunton Park and can be expected to be unveiled as a Carlisle United player any minute, the political journalists elevate the irrelevant to the important while never seeming to grasp how unimportant most of it is. They, too, have their version of 'The Totaliser' and it is the 'Poll of Polls' which they turn to every night to tell us breathlessly that it's the same as the night before.

Unlike the reporters sent around the grounds on deadline day whose self-loathing increases through the night and is a redeeming feature, too many of the political journalists seem certain of their own significance, a sense strengthened as they have moved effortlessly from the junior common room to whatever important position they hold today, arguing with the same people they argued with in those university days.

The idea that all of this is important can't be sustained and the coverage shows that the mask is slipping. Last week, you could see journalists covering the election by bike or while running with a dog. Presumably somebody thought this was a good way of 'livening things up' or finding a 'quirky angle' but what it really said was - this doesn't matter.

If, for example, a factory closed down, it is hard to imagine an editor saying to a journalist, "They've lost a thousand jobs up there, get your running gear on, grab a dog and we'll film you jogging round the area."

Like Sky Sports on a deadline day taken over by Nathan Buddle, they are simply trying to hold our attention on something we understandably aren't that interested in.

There are other similarities between the two codes. The political scientist David Runciman wrote last week about the manner in which political journalism has become an entrenched place where nobody says very much at all but says it very loudly.

Runciman understands sport and has previously noted some common themes. Writing about Kevin Pietersen last year, he remarked that "some professions attract people suffering from extreme forms of narcissism (or as it's sometimes called, narcissistic personality disorder). Politics is one; sport is another."

Perhaps this has something to do with the adrenaline on offer but while sport, music and good books offer a way of escaping and connecting simultaneously, politics increasingly is doomed by its disconnectedness, a feeling which is exploited by terrible men like Nigel Farage.

To the carpenter with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail and to Nigel Farage, every problem looks like a nail made in Romania.

For all its faults, the Premier League has provided a different vision. England is a kind and welcoming host for the league which has provided the opportunity for men from around the world to demonstrate the benefits of open borders.

Of course, there are those who would like restrictions, believing the problems of English football would be solved if there were fewer foreigners. At this point it is worth pointing out again that in 1978 nearly 70 per cent of the British public believed the country was in danger of being swamped by other cultures. At that time, net migration was approximately zero.

Sport provides an arena in which fears can be demonstrated to be groundless while politics does little but exacerbate them. Football has one redeeming feature: football. There is always another game, an arena when some truths, maybe imperfect, are uncovered even if it is not the metaphor for life that some claim.

Runciman observed last week that the engagement between politicians and political journalists is a struggle for power and the next day's headlines are the prize.

"It's simply a question of power v power. The prize for which both sides are competing is the right to plant their flag on some small piece of territory within the vast domain of informational space," he wrote. "The battle is won by the person who sets the agenda for the next day's news. A gaffe, a scoop, a soundbite, a rebuttal: these are the spoils of victory."

He points out that at Cambridge they have a course in public policy and students are trained in how to handle an adversarial journalist. "Rule one: don't try to answer the question."

This would be a familiar rule to those who watch post-match interviews. Politics, it seems, is not deadline day after all, it is football if football was always a Jose Mourinho press conference.

In politics, they will tell us that polling day is the equivalent of match day but is that enough? There is always the strange sensation in the 24 hours after the polls close of listening to politicians and realising that those weird noises coming from their mouths are the sounds they make when telling the truth.

The rest of the time they are in the spin room, pretending they're in The West Wing, playing at being the actors who were playing at being the political class. In there they will explain why Ed Miliband - a cricket lover at least - was looking directly into the camera during the debate even if, at times, he was staring slightly to one side of it like a person at a party glancing over your shoulder to see if someone more important has arrived. You'd have to say that, like Raheem Sterling, he was badly advised.

Sport is supposed to be triviality and sports journalism the toy department but they devour this stuff and will analyse the significance of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich and remain on high alert should he ever consider eating one in public again.

Maybe there is something meaningful at the end of it but after one week of the campaign, it was possible to see politics, with its drudgery and its inability to distinguish between the trivial and the things which merit our attention, as the metaphor for life. Sport, on the other hand, is escapism and in escaping we sometimes glimpse the truth about how we live.

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