Rock'n'Roll Politics Election Special
Political columnist Steve Richards considers how the May 2015 general election might pan out at the inaugural Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics
Political anoraks with an interest in Westminster have been lucky to be based in Belfast over the past couple of years. On jaunts across the Irish sea, cartoonist Steve Bell brought his brand of acerbic surrealism to the Black Box (and informed audiences how he fought to keep Cameron in that condom), MP and distinguished diarist Chris Mullin dissected British politics, and Simon Hoggart delivered near parting thoughts on life, politics and Northern Ireland.
As part of the inaugural and pleasantly ambitious Imagine! 2015 Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics – a bastard child of the Belly Laughs Festival of comedy – genial columnist Steve Richards' Rock'n'Roll Politics Election Special promises to offer more of the same. Richards certainly begins with some interesting thoughts on what we might call 'the political psyche'; he sees our current leaders in London as victims of over-promotion, un-formed creatures who show at every turn what he calls the 'insecurity of the political class'.
Richards considers the puzzling question of Labour leader Ed Miliband's strange party conference speech in September 2014, notable for a rather large omission: the economy, stupid. That ommission was, apparently, to do with draft number five hundred, or something, and the intervention of one of Barack Obama's advisors, David Axelrod.
Axelrod unfortunately told Miliband to go folksy in the American manner, presenting himself as liberator of the ordinary citizens he meets in north London. It worked badly; Milliband peopled his speech with a cast of naff, almost Wordsworthian characters, like IT man, Gareth. As Richards adds, it made you wonder whether Milliband had been listening to Pink Floyd pre-speech, or, indeed, taking drugs. Which, of course, he hadn't.
After polling those present on the possible outcome of the general election in May 2015 – I vote for no outright Conservative or Labour majorities, as it happens – and getting a feel of an informed audience, Richards gets down to business. He is a master anecdotalist and understands the relationship between the media and the political cadre only too well.
On Clegg's naivety in numbering the women he had slept with, in his determination to come across as normal, Richards is scathing. He deals with the posh question similarly.
As he notes, patrician former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had no image problem in the 1950s, though he was regularly shown shooting game birds with impunity, but the same isn't true of today's leaders. In an odd way, David Cameron, George Osborne (not an old Etonian, incidentally), Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – whose state school is still regarded as academically elite and sometimes referred to as 'Labour's Eton' – are bound by privilege. You almost feel sorry for the guys. They're just too posh – imagine not knowing your Byron burger from their Greggs' meat pie!
All this comes together nicely in Richards' disquisition on what you we have to call Pastygate, when George Osborne's whizzo idea of raising the tax on the Cornish pasty backfired. This was an example of the 21st century trivialisation of politics writ large, and in a sense Richards' over-emphasis on some of these events illustrates the point – he inhabits the Westminster village and is, like many others, inevitably caught up in its concerns.
The debate about TV debates is a case in point. As he says, everybody in London is very excited about whether Cameron will participate and if so, in which format. Some of us outside that inner City circle, however, may be curious about manifestos and more substantial issues. As one woman in the audience observes, global economics will increasingly influence our world and UK politicians don't seem to be paying attention.
Of course, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, according to Hunter S Thompson, and Richards' analysis of the current political situation merits the adjective. In countries used to decent majorities, he reveals, the coalition of 2010 is seen as odd, and what looks like being another inconclusive result in May, with some horse-trading in there for added weirdness, similarly strange. The cast is weirder still: UKIP leader Nigel Farage and fellow buffoon Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, are unfortunate additions.
The themes of the evening, including political inauthenticity, are well delivered and the interactive second part works very well, with some interesting insights into the current Northern Irish impasse offered from the floor. Richards is interesting on Labour's choices and Miliband's chance of doing a deal with the SNP, although why he thinks Alex Salmond, standing as an MP, would be first in line for a good job over Nicola Sturgeon, I'm not sure. Ultimately, if compared to recent political talks, it is overall a tad disappointing, but then maybe that is to do with our current political leaders and what is on offer to us on May 8.