Ed Balls and Honey G: why reality TV has succeeded where western democracy has failed

The departure of the novelty acts from their respective talent shows contrasts starkly with the dominance of populist figures in politics.

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Ah, Saturday night television. A respite from the troubles of the rest of the world, where white male mediocrity is championed, where the whims of the public are humoured on a global stage, where experience is trumped by controversy and entertainment factor. Oh, wait...

The worlds of international politics and reality TV have never had more overlap. So, why, just a few weeks after novelty candidate Donald Trump won the US presidential elections, did double-left-footed Ed Balls bow out of Strictly Come Dancing, and modern-day one-woman minstrel show Honey G finally get voted off The X Factor? How are television programmes able to prevent gimmick triumphing over talent at the final hurdles when our political systems are not?  

Is it thanks to the voting systems? Strictly and The X Factor have similar approaches, albeit with key differences. The X Factor encourages the public to vote for its favourite acts – the two least popular will then be turned over to the panel of four judges, who will vote to save their favourite of the remaining two.

Strictly, always more self-consciously fair than The X Factor, with a focus on improvement and skill over sheer fun, takes the judge’s opinions into greater consideration – the final ranking half based on public votes and half based on judge’s scores. Again, the final two acts are turned over to the judges to choose from.

This week, both Strictly and The X Factor’s electoral colleges succeeded in vanquishing their novelty acts. “I have to do what I think the public would expect me to do in this position, and I also think one of the acts has gone as far as they can go now,” Simon Cowell said as Honey G was eliminated.

Meanwhile, on Strictly, the judges unanimously decided to send Ed Balls home. Craig Revel Horwood and Darcey Bussell cited competitor Judge Rinder’s better “technical” ability, while Bruno Tonioli added, “I have to choose the better dancers.”

Basically – “It was funny at first, but this has gone on long enough, and we all know you’re not the best in the race.”

You know the world’s in a sorry state when you start wondering if an electoral college consisting of Len Goodman and Nicole Scherzinger might be an effective damage limitation strategy for future political elections.

But, sadly, it would be disingenuous to pretend that Simon Cowell and Craig Revel Horwood are to be thanked for making a bold and courageous defence of meritocracy, and in doing so saving the British public from themselves. For Ed and Honey G to get to the bottom two in the first place, their public support had to be dwindling. As both competitions neared their close — X Factor has two weeks left while Strictly has one more — viewers were simply over the joke.

I don’t know why we are more likely to elect Boris Johnson Mayor of London (twice), throw four million votes at Nigel Farage, or elect Donald Trump POTUS than we are to allow Ed Balls or Honey G get to the final stages of competitions fairly lacking in talent to begin with. But looking to Saturday night TV for answers to the world’s most pressing problems was always doomed to fail. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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