Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Chaos Election

This election is now officially fascinating.

Politically, it's dead, of course, which is why Thursday's debate degenerated into a beauty contest won by the most plausible salesman. That so vapid a performance as Nick Clegg's attracted so many plaudits is testimony both to the low level of expectation prior to the event and the fickleness of public opinion. In truth the debate was a dismal spectacle: three men squabbling for possession of a tiny patch of ground marked out for them by focus groups. That's not to say that there are not real philosophical and policy differences between the main parties; just that they weren't on display the other night. Some have been impressed by the attention to detail shown to varying degrees by all three men. They were expecting nothing but soundbites and cheap caricatures; instead there was what passed for forensic dissection of the implications of various policies. It was an illusion. The real issues - the gargantuan budget deficit, the futile and unwinnable conflict in Afghanistan, the approaching pensions crisis - figured scarcely at all.

Instead, three members of the political elite were allowed to interact with each other before a silent, and silenced, audience. That Nick Clegg came off better than the others in a three-way face-off isn't particularly surprising - he was the least familiar face, he spoke first and he had a straightforward (if disingenuous) message: I'm different. What is significant is that his victory should have been translated so rapidly into a turnaround in the polls. It was, after all, only a TV show. And we are not electing a president (even though it is so often - and deliberately - made to seem as though we are). The volatility is a sign that the electorate is unenthusiastic about any of the parties on offer, yet still sufficiently connected with the democratic process to have a residual feeling that they ought perhaps to vote for someone. Cleggmania is the last dying gasp of a bankrupt political system.

So what's so fascinating? Not the politics, but the maths. The interaction between the three main parties, combined with the uneven distribution of seats, means that the election is - in the technical sense - chaotic. It cannot be predicted. All results are possible, including a nightmare one in which the Lib Dems secure the largest number of votes and are a distant third in terms of seats, while Labour, soundly beaten into third place, romp home with an absolute majority. It could happen, though a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party - though far fewer votes than the Conservatives - increasingly looks the most likely outcome. Neither result would be remotely acceptable from a democratic point of view, and the former could result in a crisis of confidence making the expenses business look straightforward. And then what? Crowds out on the streets, as would be inevitable in a country where democracy was newer and less careworn? A collective shrug, more likely.

What is happening at the moment isn't really a democratic election. It looks and sounds like a democratic election, but it isn't. It's a game of three-dimensional chess played by statisticians and PR experts, none of whom have a clue how it will play out. That's what makes it so fascinating, but also so infuriating.