2019 General Election Day 1: When is a gaffe not a gaffe?

What Guy Fawkes couldn’t achieve, the Queen has and on the day after Bonfire Night, we have no MPs. We’ll carry on like that for another five weeks, until we start getting new ones elected from around 11pm on what’s hopefully an unseasonably warm December night.

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Today’s trivia question: What does Kay Burley have in common with Clint Eastwood?

In a change from usual election practice, we are also currently lacking a Secretary of State for Wales after Alun Cairns resigned over questions of how much he knew about a former aide of his attempting to “sabotage” a rape trial. Although it’s only a day into it, I can’t remember any previous elections where a member of the Cabinet has resigned during the campaign itself, and it’s been part of a generally miserable day for the Conservatives. Attempting to damp down the controversy caused by yesterday’s comments by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrew Bridgen on Grenfell, James Cleverly was doing the traditional tour of media studios by a party chairman but managed to miss an appearance on Sky News where Kay Burley instead put a series of questions to an empty chair.

Now, there are plenty of places out there where you can get round ups of all the day’s election news and developments, often coupled with breathless speculation about what today’s variations within the margin of error in the polls mean, so I’m not going to emulate those but instead try and think about the bigger picture and whatever other issues come to mind. So the question that’s pressing for me today is how important are all these gaffes and scandals and outrages that fill social media? How much do these events change opinion and the way people vote? In short, are they important?

You can imagine many of the books that will be published next year about this election starting with a paragraph listing all the Tory woes from day one of the campaign. However, you can also imagine two possible next paragraphs. One that starts “Jeremy Corbyn entering Number 10 was inevitable in the face of this poor campaigning”, the other “Despite this inauspicious start, Boris Johnson was elected with a majority” the likelihood of each dependent on just how much people notice things like this and how much they influence their voting decisions.

What’s important to remember is that if you’re reading this post you’re a freak and an outlier. You’ve chosen to go and read information about the general election and you probably follow political Twitter and Facebook accounts. You’re likely the sort of person who pays a lot of attention to politics and actively seeks out information on it. In short, you’re very different to the bulk of the UK population, most of whom pay very little or no attention to politics, even when there’s a general election on. The amount of time and attention people pay to politics in a normal week can usually best be measured in minutes or even seconds, not hours. Issues, events and personalities that can seem of vital importance to people involved or interested in politics will often have no effect whatsoever on the vast majority of people who’ll just fail to register that it even exists.

A general election is a special event, something that people spend months or even years preparing for, and it takes place in a wider sphere of activity that has a whole forest of related activity around it to comment, analyse and interpret what’s going on for those who want to know more. As a media event, it’s very like an Olympics or a major sports tournament or maybe it’s just the latest series of a celebrity reality contest show. Think of one of those events that you have no personal interest in and consider how you interact with it when it’s happening, and that will give you some idea of how people interact with politics.

(One interesting factor of this year’s election is that it will coincide with this years I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and the closing stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Place your bets now on which gets the most people watching…)

Most recently, if you didn’t pay attention to rugby or just look at sports news generally, you probably weren’t aware that the Rugby World Cup was happening over the last couple of months. As it went on, and both England and Wales got closer to the final, you may have seen more mentions of it, either creeping into the parts of the news you do pay attention to, or through friends on social media discussing it or just in general conversation, and that might have registered enough to get you to watch a game, perhaps the final, and have an opinion on something you didn’t even know about a few weeks ago. Or imagine that you don’t watch Strictly but that you do read the Metro on your way to work every Monday morning so you pick up from their stories who’s in and who’s out, what was controversial, what was liked. Or you might ignore those bits, or read them and forget about them the moment you turn the page.

That “oh, is that happening, that’s interesting, what next?” attitude is how most people interact with politics. That’s not to say they don’t have political views, but that they don’t have that ongoing connection to the political process and political campaigns that we who engage in the political bubble do. (On a related but separate note, it is interesting to consider politics as just another fandom and I recommend listening to Penny Andrews’s talk on the subject)

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For lots more on this and how people form opinions, this is the classic text on the subject.

An election campaign is effectively a fight between the parties and candidates to grab that little bit of attention people pay to politics and get some of your points to stick in it so that people use them as a consideration when they’re deciding how to vote. That’s the reason election campaigns are characterised by a deluge of paper, a flood of social media content, a barrage of emails, and hordes of politicians trying to get on every TV programme and YouTube channel they can, because they’re hoping to get your attention just enough for you to think that something they said is good enough or important enough for you to remember.

Is a gaffe still a gaffe if no one notices it or remembers it? Does it matter if by the time everyone makes their decision about how to vote they don’t give it any consideration? That’s the question to ask about what’s happened today, and what will happen every day in this campaign — is this going to get people’s attention, lodge in their memory and be a consideration when they’re voting? And if it is, how many people is it going to effect, and how much will it change their behaviour? Just because the election campaign has officially started, it doesn’t mean that many people are paying much attention to it right now, and all that’s going on could just be noise, not signal, to them.

And if you’re already sick to death of the election even as it’s just beginning, remember that there are some people out there who barely know it’s happening and have noticed nothing of it so far. The lucky bastards.

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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