This is an election of closed doors and closed minds. Behind the closed doors of a nursery school (Guardian reporters excluded) the PM and Boris play sticky blue fingers with three-year-olds while cameras turn. Behind the closed doors of some spruced-up hospital, Ed Miliband chats voicelessly with smiling nurses and doctors. Legions of minders shield their leaders from the horror of what happened five years ago when Gordon Brown met Mrs Gillian Duffy and said something out of turn. But that’s not all that we see happening now. The closed minds on both sides of the door – politicians inside, press outside – seem endemic.
Examine the facts of our shrinking media and party world, locked in symmetrical decline. Since the last election, newspaper sales have fallen with a thud. In March 2010, national dailies sold 10.9m copies. In March 2015, make that 7.6m on an average day – or 11.4m to 7.3m on an average Sunday. See the Sun slide from 3m to 1.86m, the Mail from 2.1m to 1.6m, the Telegraph from 678,000 to 480,000. Down go the Guardian from 283,000 to 175,000, the Indie from 184,000 to 59,000, the Times from 502,000 to 391,000. Half a decade’s worth of depression.
And political party membership? The Tories have gone from 177,000 to 149,000, Lib Dems from 65,000 to 44,000, since the coalition began. Maybe Labour has run on the spot around the 190,000 mark, but on any broader count we’ve see the percentage of true, signed-up believers for the major parties plunge from 1.3% of the total electorate to 0.8% over 10 years.
Moreover, if you want to press the parallels, the age range where newspapers and the parties both struggle hardest is among the young. Some 42% of those aged between 16 and 24 told the Office for National Statistics last year that they have “no interest” in politics, compared with 21% of the over-65s. And across all the age ranges rolled together, 28% of adults were “not at all” interested by politics.
Of course there are shafts of light here and there. Daily Mail reading online has risen from 2.3m unique browsers a day to 14m over the span of the last parliament, the Guardian has gone from 1.9m to 7.2m. Papers that had barely stirred on the broadband scale – such as the Indie – are making good progress. The SNP, Ukip and the Greens could say much the same on the political front. Nevertheless, when choices of government have to be made, fewer activists and fewer readers – often the same people – keep the debate going: a narrower, more ferocious debate waged in narrow, ferocious language.
Wade through the digital comment at the bottom of so many election pieces and you stumble into web swamps heaving with hate. Labour’s “disgusting lies” are ritually roasted before breakfast. Nick Clegg is incinerated toast. And a combative Guardian piece on Tory NHS performance from a former deputy editor of the Indie (and Cameron speechwriter) prompts one reader to howl apocalypse: “I don’t like mendacious tracts in my newspaper of choice requiring me to weave through them like someone avoiding dog shit on the pavement.”
“Ian Birrell should be writing for the Sun, Mail, Times,” snarls another, who actually takes the name “Hatetories”. Apparently today’s version of democratic freedom means avoiding reading something you don’t agree with.
Such an assumption is newer than you might suppose, just like the audience reach of newspapers. The Guardian, for instance, once had a 20%-plus chunk of Conservative voters and many more Liberals piled on top. But when it gingerly advocated a Lib Dem vote last time, readers choosing Gordon Brown still flooded in to win the day. The domination of Labour voters and Labour views has tightened over the years as loyalties and circulations contracted. Of course a few nationals aren’t bound tight to the majority of their readership. When the Sun “won it” for John Major in 1992 fewer than half of its readers voted Tory. Perhaps the Mail, Telegraph and Mirror have always been consistently visceral, but millions of voters have floated back and forth, winning or losing as they go. (When Richard Desmond bought the Express he plumped for Labour: now he’s floated over to Farage.)
Yet where do you find the true floaters today? Not in the pitch the parties make. They talk to themselves and their core vote – and not, it would seem, in newspapers. On both sides of the House, the headlines and arguments seem more than ever tailored to stir the faithful. It’s axiomatic, at this stage of a campaign, to note the weight of the Tory press; but today the answering fire from the left seems only a little more reflective. The jousting and jabbing arrives full on. There aren’t readers of other persuasions who need a different tone of voice or a different kind of argument.
Yet what price the 28% in the middle who aren’t interested? What price the 42% who can barely raise a flicker of interest between them? No wonder many newspapers last week began to lead on something – anything – rather than more argy-bargy politicking. No wonder circulations are still stuck in the mud. And no wonder the polls are still stuck down there with them.
Perhaps a few truncated TV debates – and the eternal Humphrys playing horrid all round on radio mornings – are the best we can do. But remember that the programmes the devotees watch – Marr, Newsnight, the indefatigable, irresistible Andrew Neil et al –are inevitably minority offerings which tend fill in the cracks rather than build new highways of understanding. Even Evan Davis versus Farage in BBC1 prime time comes in under a third of Poldark’s audience.
Perhaps “Hatetories” is the flavour of the digital day. But too many times in this campaign you can sweep crumpled newspapers and election pamphlets into the same bin and watch, mournfully as they lie there with no one in the middle to pick them up.