'I don't understand it. And then I don't want to vote on something that I don't really, truly understand.' Scarlett Moffat, Gogglebox.
'I don't know what the effect is going to be for me personally, whether I'm in or out?'
Because no one is telling us what we're going to lose and what we're going to gain'
Steph and Dom Parker, Gogglebox.
'He looks like he's put on weight to me... ' Stephen Webb, Gogglebox
The forthcoming EU Referendum on 23rd June has already unleashed a series of fantastic claims and counter claims.
Neither side is holding back on their use of extreme language or of hyperbole, negativity and fear. And quite a lot of people are either still undecided or rapidly tiring of the whole thing. Or both.
To grab our attention and to shock us into voting, many claims are increasingly bizarre. From the EU's supposed 'outlawing' of prawn cocktail flavour crisps and non-standard condoms (Boris Johnson) to the promise of higher costs for the Great British Roast Dinner and for holidays and not so low cost airlines (David Cameron). There doesn't appear to be very much balanced consideration of the positives and negatives from either side. So far that seems to be left to the media and to the neutrals such as the former and current heads of the Bank of England, Mervyn King and Mark Carney. More recently we have Barack Obama weighing in.
But our politicians are used to campaigning in extremes.
From 'Tax Bombshells' to 'Broken Britain', we have become used to the politics of headlines, soundbites and drama. Elections now tend to focus on headline grabbing narratives. During the day to day exchanges in parliament this repeats itself amongst the soundbites, 'lines to take' and scripted put downs in parliament. The US academic Murray Edelman described it as the 'political spectacle' – theatrical episodes, reinforced by the demands of 24 hour news media and the only momentary interest of voters.
More recently and closer to home, Professor Janet Newman of the Open University describes politicians' use of language as typically constituting a 'stereotyped and demonised past and a visionary and idealised future'. It is perhaps easier for those in campaigning to leave to roll out negative stories of the present – from immigration to bananas – than it is for those defending the technocratic ambiguity of the status quo?
But the political spectacle demands that the 'leavers' also ratchet up the rhetoric. It's like a leap in the dark. From the Titanic. (Actually an argument made by Priti Patel on the Today Programme about why we should vote to leave). Even Leonardo DiCaprio's biggest fans may have found that one hard to grasp.
Mario Cuomo, when Governor of New York, described the difference between elections and day to day administration, as campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. In the referendum camps whilst both sides might prefer the poetic, it is the remain supporters who are more likely to end up mired in the messy, pragmatic pros and cons of the present and recent past. For the remain camp, neither spectacle nor poetry is easy. Defending the imperfect, the technocratic, the average, the dull and grey... It might mean that those wanting to remain simply have a tougher, more complex message. But more positively for them, this might also mean an equivalent of the 2015 General Election's 'Shy Tory' effect – less to shout and be passionate about, but more to lose in the long run.
But what do voters really want to hear?
Those that are convinced either way are likely to be happier with the extremes of a polarised campaign making ever more fantastic claim and counter claim. But according to the polls there are a pretty sizeable number of undecided voters – and enough to make a difference to either side. Some may be scared into voting, whilst others may not feel that have enough cold, dispassionate information about the EU to decide. At least that's what they said on Gogglebox. And that may be just as reliable as some political polling.
If Edelman is right about the political spectacle then the antics and promises of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Alan Johnson and let's not forget Michael Caine, Ian Botham and Barack Obama, should be enough to keep us entertained. Who then will educate and inform? The Media? Many are visibly supporting Leave or Remain too. The BBC, true to its Reithian values, are still trying to educate, inform and entertain us in a reasonably balanced way. So to are Channel 4 – and more from the Siddiquis, Moffats and Parkers on Gogglebox may help us to understand more about public understanding as well as voter intention.
But universities too have education, debate and free speech at the heart of their charters, missions and values. Whatever we may choose to vote individually on 23rd June, we have a duty to provide the information and the spaces for others to think about and to understand the issues and their choices. We also have a wider duty to understand why the public feel the way that they do about the Referendum and about how they understand, consume or reject politics in general. It seems that we might all have a lot to learn.
The Managerial State: Power, Politics and Ideology in the Remaking of Social Welfare, John Clarke and Janet Newman, Sage 1997
Constructing the Political Spectacle, Murray Edelman, University of Chicago 1988
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About the Author
Professor Andy Westwood is Professor of Politics and Policy at the University of Winchester
(Image credit: Pixabay)