What really grinds my gears close

David Hart
David Hart
In Musings, Grinds My Gears
15th February 2011
What really grinds my gears

What really grinds my gears #2

Following on our new series where someone grumpy in the agency has a moan about what hacks them off. This month: political debate.

What has politics got to do with a digital agency you may ask? Well, when we write our corporation tax cheque each year, caring about how it’s spent becomes a concern. And, let’s not forget, decisions taken in parliament have a direct affect on our commercial well-being. 

The problem is, politicans treat political debate like some sort of game show, where the rules are to avoid answering difficult questions whilst simultaneously insulting your opponent and sticking to your message. Trouble is, this isn’t an extension of their University Debating Society, it's real decisions that affect real people's lives. Take the recent clash in the Commons between Ed Balls and George Osborne, where Mr Balls begins by referencing an increase to the bank levy. Here is a shortened version:

Ed Balls: Good job I didn’t have a breakfast meeting this morning or I would have missed his rather hurried ‘mini budget’. 

Cue: laughter from his side of the House (because the implications for all of us of raising taxes from the banks is funny, right?) 

It snowed so badly in December in the UK that…the economy slumped and unemployment rose. In America it also snowed badly but the pace of economic growth increased… could the Chancellor tell the House, is there something different about British snow?

More laughter (our economy’s woes clearly an endless source of humour for those in opposition).

George Osborne: I must welcome him….now he and the Leader of the Opposition know what it’s like to be the people’s second choice. 

Laughter on the other side of the house (they feel that their guy is the funnier stand up. But joking aside, this is a serious question: why exactly is the economy growing in the US and has stalled in the UK? Will the Chancellor explain the situation and reassure us)?

When he was at the Treasury… Britain had the largest housing boom, biggest deficit…he is a deficit denier. 

(So, just use it as an opportunity to attack the opposition, then…)

EB: Mr Speaker, no answer to the question about America, then. Perhaps he should have spent less time on the ski slopes of Switzerland and more time in the conference halls of Davos listening to the American Treasury Secretary….will he have to stand here in 6 weeks time and downgrade his first growth forecast?

(Nobody cares about Osborne skiing, but we would like to know if he still stands by his growth forecast.)

GO: He clearly had a lot of time to prepare for that but I’m not sure it came out as expected.

(Nobody wants a critique on his delivery, Mr Osborne, but they would like an answer to that question.)

What I will say is this: we have had to deal with his economic legacy….

(Ad nauseam)

And at the end of this exchange we learn absolutely NOTHING. All we are left with is a sense of frustration that we have bothered to waste our time listening to two not-very-funny men trying to get one up on each other. 

The one thing I did hear that resonated was during Prime Minister’s Question Time when MPs were shouting and jeering like a bunch of morons and the Speaker said “these exchanges are excessively rowdy and I must ask members on both sides to consider what the public thinks of this sort of behaviour”. Indeed.

If I had my way, questions in Parliament would have the same gravitas as questions in Court – and anyone not answering them or treating them seriously would be held in contempt.

But there is a wider lesson that I think Social Media is teaching us. And that is that, just because you stick to your line and refuse to answer a reasonable question, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t drawing their own conclusions.

We all know that people are talking about you on Twitter whether you like it or not, but how would we deal with a sudden torrent of criticism that is coming your way? If you were a political party you’d most likely ignore it, or publish an unrelated Tweet that just repeats your message. But I think this is a mistake. Ignoring it is says either you don’t respect the people who are talking or you’re too stupid to realise that it’s being said in the first place.

When Nick Clegg was being berated on Twitter for breaking his election promises, what did he do? He has a Twitter account, with over 50,000 followers, so how do we think he chose to use it to engage with those people venting their frustration? Well, surprisingly on the day of the student riots, other than referencing an interview, he did nothing. I’m guessing that everything is so carefully planned and spun through his media adviser that they advised that he shouldn’t stoop so low as to respond. 

But the truth is, this is a world of instant opinion and we all need to embrace it. We need to put our hands up when we mess up. We need to explain how we’re going to do better next time. And we need to do this by engaging on a human level, because you can’t be Tweeting trivia one minute and lying low the next. Political parties are out of tune with sentiment when they continue to wriggle out of answering genuine questions and treating it as a game, rather than the serious business of running our country.

And that, folks, is what really grinds my gears.