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Trouble ahead at the Treasury

Unnoticed, the Lib Dems are driving through changes to the structure of personal tax allowances. And

For many politicians, tax cuts are the elixir of politics. In times of plenty they are deployed triumphantly as evidence of a thriving economy; in times of hardship they are handed down by chancellors as a salve to a hard-pressed public. So it should come as no surprise that, even in this parliament - dominated as it has been by arguments about fiscal austerity, tax rises and lower spending - there will be a growing debate about which taxes to cut.

Political gravity will ensure this is the case. As the economy gradually recovers - at the same time as the pain of the deepest and longest wage squeeze in living memory maintains its grip on family bank balances - politicians will be desperate to offer hope of better times ahead. They will know that tax cuts won't solve the structural problem of stagnant wages, nor will they deal with the rising pressures on the cost of living. And there will still be sharply differing views about whether tax cuts for some mean tax rises for others, as opposed to further cuts to spending. But have no doubt: all party leaders will be forced to offer respite to a public whose anger about falling living standards will reach boiling point over the next few years.

So, how will the coming tussle over tax cuts play out? There will be a few early skirmishes following the Budget, which inevitably included a few popular giveaways - such as the cut in fuel duty and support for first-time housebuyers - along with a tax cut for business (and let's not forget that George Osborne has already proved capable of pulling rabbits out of a hat, as with his dramatic promise to raise the inheritance-tax threshold in October 2007 - a move that skewered Labour's plans for an early general election).

Osborne clearly wants to burnish his credentials as a Lawson-like tax reformer as well as a spending cutter, so in the months ahead he'll talk up the radicalism of his long-term ambition to merge National Insurance and income tax. But the challenges involved in this are daunting, and the Conservatives are very unlikely to go into the next election having just raised the basic rate of income tax by 12p, so don't expect this to yield practical policies any time soon.

Indeed, it says something about the topsy-turvy state of today's politics that we need to look first at the Liberal Democrats to understand the shifting politics of tax. It is perhaps the least remarked-upon story in Westminster that the smaller and deeply unpopular coalition partner is driving one of the biggest changes in domestic policy - and in a department it doesn't even control. Not since the days of David Lloyd George have Liberal politicians had such influence over the Treasury's tax policies.

The ambitions of senior Lib Dems are not to be underestimated. Nick Clegg knows what he wants. He has been fighting hard for it internally and he is going to succeed in getting most of it - notably, a £10,000 income tax personal allowance at a total cost of more than £13bn (having already secured a commitment to a rise in the personal allowance from £6,475 to £7,475, increased in the Chancellor's 23 March Budget to £8,105 in April 2012.

Clegg's party has been emboldened by the quiescence of its Conservative partners. That is in part because the £10,000 commitment is a central fact of the coalition agreement, but it has also served the Conservative leadership's purpose to go along with something that deflects irritant calls from Boris Johnson and the Tory right to prioritise the removal of the 50p tax rate for the top 1 per cent of earners - a move that would delight Labour - just as it provides Tory leaders with a ready-made and voter-friendly tax-cutting agenda to talk about.

This context helps explain why senior Liberal Democrats, battered on so many fronts, are more ideologically self-confident than their coalition partners on this naturally Conservative terrain. They are the ones making the political weather on tax. Buoyed by this, they have set about working on what they should be seeking to achieve by 2015; and, more significantly, what their distinct Liberal ambitions for the tax system should be in 2020.

As part of their wider ideological journey, Clegg and those around him view themselves as the authors of a new "fiscal liberalism". This blends the spirit of John Stuart Mill's call for a generous, tax-free allowance sufficient for "life, health and immunity from bodily pain" with the modernising zeal of last year's Mirrlees Review (produced for the Institute for Fiscal Studies), which sets out far-reaching proposals for simplifying the UK tax system.

The priority is to achieve and then surpass the totemic commitment to increasing tax-free allowances. Don't be surprised when Liberal Democrat outriders call for a detailed plan for securing the £10,000 allowance in this parliament and £15,000 in the next.

The belief is that a "liberal tax system" should protect a greater chunk of individual earnings from the state, a sharp contrast with the social-democratic view that support for families, funded through progressive income taxes and tax credits, is the beating heart of a fair tax system. Nor do the Lib Dems' ambitions end here. Clegg is likely to push for further increases in green taxes - putting him on a direct collision course with Conservative backbenchers who want big cuts to fuel duty - and for raising more revenue from "unearned income".

Footloose families

One of the great political advantages of having a single, emblematic tax policy is that, in contrast to many of the tax changes of the Blair/Brown years, it is an easy thing to communicate. Quite simply, people are likely to get it. So where's the rub? The hard truth that Clegg and his team have largely sidestepped is that the simplicity of the allowance policy comes at a sig­nificant price: the distributional effects of the strategy are distinctly odd. Some high-income households (often with no children) gain quite a lot each time the allowance is raised, while many middle-income families with children gain nothing and, indeed, are set to lose a great deal (see chart 1), and the very poorest, who don't pay tax, won't get a penny.

This is not an accident: it is a direct result of tax cuts based on individual rather than household income. Further, because this year's increased tax allowance will be linked to a reduction in the income level at which the 40p tax rate kicks in, an extra 700,000 higher-rate taxpayers will be created in April.

For now, Clegg will shrug off these charges with the broad-brush argument that individual beneficiaries are overwhelmingly basic-rate taxpayers. He will not be so relaxed if a popular sentiment emerges that his prized tax strategy offers little to precisely those working (and politically footloose) middle-income families that hold the key to the next election.

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All of this gives the Labour leadership plenty to reflect on. Apart from airing its internal travails over the 50p rate, and Ed Balls's recent call for fuel to be exempt from the January VAT increase, Labour has said remarkably little about tax. Many on the political right, together with much of the media class - and some former New Labour figures - have already written off Miliband and Balls as big-state high taxers with no "feel" for the concern of people striving to get on in life, nor the discipline to rein in a party hard-wired to tax and spend. That is likely to be a serious misjudgement.

It was Balls and Miliband who came of age masterminding the commitment to stick to Tory spending plans, and showed the steel necessary to peg Labour to pre-1997 basic and top rates of tax. You don't go through that experience in your late twenties only to forget it in your early forties.

Recently Miliband has said that he supports "genuine" tax relief for low-to-middle-income earners but won't back a "tax con" in which a personal allowance giveaway is funded out of a hike in VAT. For now, that is a reasonable position: many low-to-middle-income earners will be worse off once increased allowances and VAT are taken into account; painfully so, once cuts to tax credits are factored in. But stick to this position for too long, and Labour will be badly exposed. Few expect the recent increase in VAT to be reversed come the next election. As chart 2 shows (below), the VAT rate has long been converging on the basic rate of income tax - Labour in power tends not to cut Conservative increases to VAT, whatever it says in opposition. Nor is there much prospect of it reversing the coalition's increased tax allowances and, in doing so, dragging many modest earners back into the tax system.

So, the risk is that Miliband ends up entering an election in 2015 saying little more than: "I now realise that I agree with Nick." Labour strategists with the ear of the leader are well aware of this conundrum and are starting to work out how to respond.

Their belief is that the coalition has made a big mistake in focusing so much of the pain of cuts on working families with children, and above all women. But they are also acutely aware that to make targeted tax cuts, at the same time as they rebuild their reputation for fiscal credibility, will be no mean feat.

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Miliband's team is heartened by private polling that it has seen on how the Obama 2008 campaign managed to break out of the Republican tax trap. With targeted tax cuts for the middle classes, the Democrats were able to change the framing question from whether each party was "for or against tax cuts" (the Democrats typically being "against") to "who do you want tax cuts for?". That freed Barack Obama to outpoll John McCain as a tax cutter for "middle-class America" at the same time as he won widespread support for tax rises for the richest 2 per cent. Labour thinks there are lessons to be learned.

Return of the 10p rate

So what are the likely directions for the different parties? No one should mistake the Conservatives' current focus on measures to boost growth with what is likely to become their agenda as we get closer to 2015. It is almost inconceivable that Osborne won't build up a formidable war chest over the next few years to fund a major commitment to cut the tax burden on families, as well as abolish the 50p rate, should the Tories win the election.

The Lib Dems have the immediate political task of reaping some popular reward for this April's increased tax allowances, and a deeper challenge - perhaps an insurmountable one - in making their strategy more appealing to middle-income families with children. One option would be to attempt to persuade the Treasury to build a child allowance into the tax system for basic-rate payers. But, apart from difficult questions about the administrative feasibility, this would ignite a huge row with the Tories, who still want to introduce a married couple's allowance. Even more significantly, senior Lib Dem strategists whisper that, in the longer term, they may need to open up a debate about moving from independent taxation to a system based on household income - as was the case before 1988. The implications of this should not go unmissed: any public contemplation of ditching one of the proudest achievements of modern feminism in the name of liberal tax reform would be explosive.

And Labour? It will try to home in on the electoral sweet spot - modest- and middle-income families with children, on a household income of between roughly £25,000 and £50,000. Less clear is what it wants to offer this group. There is already scepticism in senior circles about whether it would be enough merely to reverse some of the coalition's cuts to tax credits; a fundamental rethink is needed. This would involve looking at benefits as well as taxes and grappling with thorny problems such as child benefit - something not lost on Labour strategists, who are quick to point out that "we never said all aspects of universalism are sacrosanct".

The idea would be to create a simpler way for the tax and benefit system to support modest-income families that are going to lose from cuts to tax credits, as well as middle-income families that are going to be hit by the axing of their child benefit. At the same time, Labour will have to act to support the very lowest-paid. An intriguing option here, which would also help make peace with Labour's recent past, would be to consider a reduced tax rate for the lowest earners: might we see the return of the 10p rate?

The cost of cuts

Above all, Labour will have to balance intense and contradictory pressures for tax cuts, targeted increases in spending and the rebuilding of its fiscal credibility. Harder still, any new tax cuts will be expensive. Given the size of low-to-middle-income Britain, a few billion pounds won't stretch far; a meaningful cut is likely to cost over £10bn. In view of the fiscal outlook, Labour strategists realise that they will have to raise taxes for some in order to cut for others - as do those Lib Dems who accept that, by the next election, public spending will need to recover with growth rather than be cut further.

When it comes to income tax, there is very little room for manoeuvre. The 40p rate already kicks in at a relatively low and falling level, and there is no support for raising the 50p rate. A further increase in VAT is out of the question. This suggests the need for new ways of raising revenue from wealth and high-value housing. Expect to hear squeals in response to a Labour version of a "mansion tax", a continued push on bankers' bonuses, further savings on pension-tax relief for the highest earners and new ideas for raising money from capital gains and inheritance. Generating income from these sources will be a stiff test of Labour's resolve: the party will face bitter opposition.

In the years ahead, however, the crisis of living standards will lead to something rather like a primal scream from low-to-middle-income households, demanding relief as they become even more resentful of growing wealth at the top. The politics of taxing affluence in 2015 won't be the same as they were in 2010, never mind 1997: on this matter, the past doesn't provide a guide to the future. As Obama showed in 2008, it is possible to forge a common set of interests between low- and middle-income earners and a narrative on tax that speaks to the extraordinary times in which we are living.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser