Conservative Diary

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The coming election will be Conservative V Labour.  In some marginals, it will be Liberal Democrat V Conservative, or SNP V Labour, and so on.  There'll be related, tangential conflicts: Westminster village V real voters, old media V new media.  Finally, there'll be a big battle, one which may decide the election itself - Artificiality V Authenticity.

Artificiality is the marketing campaign.  It's the battle bus slogan.  It's the airbrushed poster.  It's the soundbite.  It's "Notes for Editors".  It's the e-mail from Party Headquarters.  It's the lobby briefing. It's inspection of campaign material.  It's the non-denial denial.  It's the masochism strategy.  It's the attack document. It's the pager message. It's private polling.  It's the strategically placed interview.  It's the line to take.

Authenticity, on the other hand, is being yourself.

Now the one of course tends to merge into the other.  The Piers Morgan interview or the Trevor MacDonald biopic or the Mumsnet quiz are in a sense artificial.  Some strategy team, some media meeting, somewhere, has decided to put the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition or the Liberal Democrat Leader through the one or the other or the third.  But these artificial gambits provide authentic moments.  What's the Prime Minister's worst domestic habit?  Is the Leader of the Opposition losing his hair?  And the big question for the Liberal Democrat Leader is...boxers or briefs (or something else)?

Mock if you wish the obsession with trivia.  Ask if you like how Churchill or Gladstone would have answered the questions.  Imagine if you must Denis Thatcher undergoing the hazards of the spouse interview.  Welcome to the spirit of the age.  A moment's pause, a second's indiscretion can shape a mood or set a tone.  If you doubt it - and talking of the Mumsnet quiz - remember Gordon Brown's agony when asked by a mum: what's your favourite biscuit?  Or those viral videos of the Prime Minister picking his nose?  The Big Brother camera rules the Westminster village.  This will be the YouTube election and I wrote about it here.

Tim wrote here earlier this week about the debate between Janet Daley and Danny Finkelstein about the merits of modernisation.  I'll add one thought to the mix.  Modernisation is in one sense artificial: it's a plan by a "small, tight-knit group of politically-motivated men" to broaden their Party's appeal.  Nothing wrong with that.  Blair did it for Labour after four election defeats.  Someone had to do it for us after three.

But time has moved on since 1997 - or 1994, when Blair became Labour leader.  Voters have always been cynical about politicians.  But polling suggests never more than now.  Why?  The question gets a thousand answers.  Because Blair raised expectations and didn't deliver.  Because of spin, Mandelson and Campbell.  Because of Iraq.  Because Labour built growth on debt.  Because they wrecked pensions.  Because of uncontrolled immigration.  Because of Europe.  Because of the media  Because of expenses.  (For more, see the threads below.)

Whatever the reasons, one thing's certain.  This election will see the death of artificiality - killed by the accessibility and speed of the new technology.  The poster campaign can be killed in a morning by a thousand internet spoofs.  The press conference can be wrecked by a candidate's YouTubed blunder, a campaign launch thrown off course by a careless tweet.  What worked in 1994 is out of date in 2010.  The voters are the masters now.

But while artificiality is dying authenticity is reviving.  Asking for a definition is another of those questions that get a thousand answers.  Beliefs.  Convictions.  Principles.  Ideas.  "Values".  And so on.  I'll offer not so much a definition as an interpretation: authenticity is a politician facing the voters directly - as politicians usually did before the 1979 election, which introduced the managed event and selected audience.  Authenticity is a politician being probed, being tested.  Authenticity is coping without the autocue.  Authenticity is an audience finding out what a politician's really made of.

David Cameron has quietly been doing a lot of "Cameron Direct" meetings round the country.  Even the Guardian wrote that he came well out of an unscripted encounter with students earlier this week which we covered here.  These meetings are risky.  They could go wrong.  Party leaders enter them unprotected by a cloak of deference.  Like the debates, they offer the nail-chewing prospect of an election-turning, YouTube moment.  But in an age that hates the artificial they offer a glimpse of the authentic.  The more of them that David Cameron does the better.  We'll win this election if voters think that we're authentic - that we're the real thing.

A last thought.  Whether you like him or not, you can imagine David Cameron talking directly to a room full of students - who are suspicious at best, hostile at worst.  Indeed, you don't have to imagine it.  He's done it.  Can you imagine Gordon Brown doing it?  Can you picture him actually taking the risk?  Shouldn't be given no peace until he does?

Paul Goodman


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