Gilbey on Film: election special

Our critic's verdict on the party political broadcasts.

What's surprising about the election broadcasts of the main parties is that time has stood still. While this election may be won or lost on the modern battlegrounds of Twitter, YouTube or Mumsnet, the parties have all passed up the chance in their broadcasts to slam-dunk the basketball of politics through the hoop marked "zeitgeist" -- by which I mean that none of them have gone for 3D. That said, I did catch a sulphurous whiff during the Conservative film, and the aroma of something stagnant during the Labour and Lib Dem contributions, so perhaps Odorama is making a comeback.

Only one of the main parties elects not to show its leader on camera (can you guess which one it is?) while only one does not feature as its central image a sombre-faced man striding purposefully toward the camera while telling us, more or less, that it's all going to be OK and this won't hurt a bit. The films themselves, on the other hand, make for painful viewing...

The Conservatives

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"How many people do you need to change a country?" asks David Cameron, forehead gleaming in the sun. As any corporate speaker will tell you, it's vital to kick off with a joke. But, nervous that we'll anticipate his punchline, Dave comes in a little too abruptly. "Answer: all of them." Did he get that one out of a cracker?

This is all delivered from a back garden on a pleasant afternoon. Whether or not it's Dave's back garden, the surroundings have been chosen to communicate some subtle messages. There are rows of houses backing on to the garden, which equals community. A shed is visible behind Dave, as is a ladder, signalling that while the garden shows promise, there is still work to be done.

One raised end of a see-saw can be glimpsed screen-left: this symbolises children and play. Its positioning also makes it appear that Dave is sitting on the other seat, weighing it down. My first reaction is that he resembles that big kid with a glandular condition, hogging the apparatus in the under-7s play area. But the thrust of the broadcast -- he wants us to join him in governing the country, you see -- renders implicit the suggestion that we should all pile onto the other end of the see-saw, thereby catapulting him into the plane-less blue sky.

After Cameron's ice-breaker, we are treated to the familiar sound of a jangling guitar -- track 2, if I'm not mistaken, of the popular K-Tel compilation Now That's What I Call MOR Indie On A Major Label, Vol III. Accompanying it is the even more familiar sight of Hardworking Mum Who Wants the Best For Her Kids. Julie of Llandudno is shown larking around with her children and tidying up after they've gone to school, all while pretending not to notice a camera crew in her house.

She's decked out in a coat of perfect Tory Blue, and her kids are in red rain-macs; so while she is decided about her political allegiances, she wouldn't presume to indoctrinate or influence her offspring (aside, that is, from signing them up to plug a party and ideology about which they know nothing and care even less).

Julie volunteers for a charity which helps disabled children. Call me twitchy, but I always get nervous when I hear information like that in a film. After all, we knew from the moment Gwyneth Paltrow's character in Seven was introduced as a primary school teacher that she would end up with her head in a box. Altruistic occupation, grisly end -- that's the rule. Isn't it obvious what wretched fate will befall poor Julie? A Conservative government, if she gets her way.

We then meet two other hardworking types. Ian has his own hydraulics business, and his own mirthless laugh. Danielle works in a hostel with people who've previously been homeless. Whether or not her clients lost their homes during the recent recession, or the early-1990s wave of Tory repossessions, is unspecified. Anyway, Danielle thinks that the important qualities in her line of work are to be a people person, to have empathy and understanding, and to insert an upward inflection that turns her every statement into a question. Is there a place in Dave's Big Society for such equivocation?

Back in the garden, Dave isn't saying. He does warn us, however, that if the Tories are elected on May 6th, we'll all be in power on May 7th, which is bad news for those of us who have dental appointments on that day.

Liberal Democrats

 

Were the Lib Dems to have made their film after Nick Clegg's recent fillip, they would have chosen a more bombastic style, perhaps incorporating the Rocky theme music, a shot of Clegg shadow-boxing outside Parliament, and a stirring slogan -- "If you liked him in the election debate, you'll LOVE him as PM!" But their party election broadcast was filmed before everyone started agreeing with Nick, which explains the half-defeated, half-badgering tone.

As sheets of paper, emblazoned with news of promises made and broken by the other parties, swirl around him and carpet the South Bank, Clegg stalks toward us. The camera retreats. The viewer may feel like doing the same.

Clegg leaves London and pops up in various locations around the country. Wherever he goes, the sheets of paper remain. This has the unfortunate effect of making Clegg into a kind of waste magnet. The final shot has particularly damaging resonances for anyone who has seen Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. As Clegg walks through a mini-tornado of litter, it's impossible not to recall Robert De Niro besieged by sheets of paper sticking to his limbs and body. When the film's hero rushes to his rescue, furiously tearing the paper away, he discovers that there is no one underneath.

Labour

 

The logic of keeping an unpopular leader off-camera is clear, which makes it even stranger that Labour has chosen as Gordon Brown's on-screen avatar a dour and hunted-looking middle-aged man trudging through the wilderness in inclement weather. On the plus side, Sean Pertwee is an actor with whom most people will be unfamiliar, so no off-putting associations there.

The disadvantage is that those of us who know his work -- well, do we really want to take advice on the country's future from a man who willingly appeared in London Kills Me, Goal! and Shopping? If you don't trust Sean, you might heed instead the words of his father, whom he quotes here as telling him: "Don't give up. Show resolve." (Which at least explains Goal! 2: Living the Dream.)

Sean's father was Jon Pertwee, star of Dr Who from 1970 to 1974. The Dr Who link continues with David Tennant, who provides the film's final flourish of narration. Rumour has it that Davros was considered for a cameo part until UKIP snapped him up in a bid to bring some sex-appeal to their anti-Europe campaign.

If election broadcasts had a taste, this one would smack of bran: it may be drab but it's supposed to be good for you. Sam Wollaston in the Guardian has already noted the film's resemblance to The Road -- there's even a shot peering at Sean from behind the trees, like one of the marauding cannibals from that film preparing to pounce. But the actor makes it out with body parts intact. And hope is hinted at as the camera rises majestically over the sight of him plodding onwards to a Labour future: not so much an 'eye of God' shot as 'eye of Gordon.'

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change