A mission for all journalists: to make politics matter

I was an expert for five and a half hours on Friday morning.

An expert in pretending to know what I’m talking about, that is.

Just a few hours after promising my wife that it was merely a case of whether Theresa May’s  landslide was just over or just under 100, I was BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s political pundit. Explaining why she’d dismally failed – both to achieve the majority she sought, but also to live up to my predictions and those of the pollsters.

Having missed the signs that May would be humiliated, I had another look into my crystal ball for my BBC friends: this time going to the opposite extreme.

“Ok, Paul, cards on the table,” invited presenter David Smith. “Will she still be PM by the end of the day?”

“No,” I confidently proclaimed.

Of course, she’s still at Number Ten, if only because no one else wants the job of dealing with the mess she’s created.

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Like Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, who masterfully seized on the phrase used against his Game of Thrones namesake, I clearly know nothing.

And perhaps one of the reasons I know nothing is that, despite living and working with young people, I underestimated them.

What was crystal clear from the polls was that, for Labour to progress, Jeremy Corbyn had to get young voters into polling stations.

Now, I am ridiculously fond of the young people who I teach, and who can amaze me with their work ethic.

But getting large numbers of 19-year-olds to be at a particular place at a particular time can be challenging.

Corbyn, however, has special powers. He was relying on a generation not famed for its reliability – and it almost worked.

The polls that predicted a May landslide did so because they assumed – understandably – that the youth turn-out would remain stubbornly low.

In actual fact, although the much-touted 72 per cent youth figure was a red herring, more reliable research by YouGov suggests the turn-out for 18 to 24-year-olds would have been 58 per cent: up from 43 per cent in 2015. There was also an unexpected decline in the turn-out among older people, and a 30something age group swing to Labour.

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Not only did the youngest voters turn out in greater numbers than ever before, they did so with greater purpose.

This was the Brexit Backlash. A generation which for the first time in modern history will be worse off than its parents making a choice that was both selfish and unselfish, responsible and irresponsible. Yes, they had an eye on tuition fees, and yes, they don’t really care where the money comes from. But this was also a vote to turn the tide of the erosion of precious public services. And this was payback time for June 23 last year: a day when millions of older and supposedly wiser voters participated in the biggest and most self-indulgent act of self-harm this nation has ever seen.

There were other things that those young voters didn’t care about: the right-wing media being one.

In a beautiful phrase in its leader column on Sunday, The Observer said the Daily Mail was ‘left firing analogue bullets in a digital age’.

And this time it wasn’t the Sun wot won it.

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This, I think we can agree, was the last death rattle of tabloid influence on general elections.

Some of the more thoughtful political journalists have admitted they were woefully off-target with their pre-election analysis.

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And there’s a good piece from Grant Feller accusing media commentators of being out-of-touch, middle-aged, males. To which I reluctantly plead guilty.

My favourite regional political journalist, the wonderful Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News, has also been mildly berating herself, despite she and her paper having the Manchester Arena horror to deal with mid-campaign.

With wise words on the need to reinforce political journalism’s value and credentials, Jen says at the next election, she wants to ‘spend ages and ages talking to voters.’

At the opposite end of the country – in my home city of Plymouth – is a man who comes a very close second to Jen, The Herald’s Sam Blackledge.

When he wasn’t writing brilliant blogs about Theresa May’s hollow soundbites  he was making it his business to talk to voters all over his city.

I’m more than 100 miles away, but my Facebook and Twitter feeds kept me in touch with the thoughts of people from all corners of my homeland.

In Plymouth, as in Manchester, every vote counts. The wafer-thin majorities with which people staggered to victory last Thursday must surely prove that – despite the unfairness of the first past the post system.

As journalists, it’s our duty to find out what people in our communities are saying and thinking, and to feed our journalism with these new insights.

The Grenfell Tower horror shows what can happen when we take our eye off the detailed political ball. Those tedious regulations, planning conditions, meeting minutes? They might be dead boring, but it turns out they’re a matter of life and death, too.

Politics matters. 

The challenge for modern journalism is to help people see that – and to ensure that their voices can be heard.


One thought on “A mission for all journalists: to make politics matter

  1. […] I said in a blog last week, this mind-boggling horror that leaves us running out of appropriate words highlights the […]

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