One small step

When did humans first land on the moon? 1969.

Unless, of course, it was all faked, as part of a conspiracy to protect American pride and money.

Around 7% of Americans think that the moon landings were faked; another 13% say they are not sure.  That 7% figure is lower than the 13% who think Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ (another 13% aren’t sure about that one).

There is a growing literature in the US examining conspiracy theories and their relationship with partisanship and voting, with (contested) claims that a growing divide is opening up between the parties over their supporters’ propensity to believe in conspiracy theories. What about here in the UK?

I asked You Gov to run a simple question testing whether Britons believe the moon landings occurred or not.  I deliberately chose a conspiracy theory that wasn’t focussed on Britain – Tony Blair is actually a lizard in human form or MI5 was involved in fixing the Scottish referendum – to get at a wider sense of belief in conspiracies, rather than anything which might be obviously partisan. The question wording was:

Some people believe that humans first landed on the moon in 1969; other people believe that the landings were faked as part of a conspiracy to protect the pride of the USA. What is your view?

As well as a don’t know option, respondents had four options: ‘Humans definitely landed on the moon in 1969’; ‘Humans probably landed on the moon in 1969, but there is a chance it was faked’; ‘The US probably faked the moon landings in 1969, but there is a chance it happened’; ‘The US definitely faked the moon landings in 1969’. The fieldwork for the poll was 19-20 April, with a total sample of 2078 adults, asked online, and with all findings subject to the company’s standard weighting.

If we take the last two categories together, we get 9% of Brits who think that the moon landings were probably or definitely faked (3% say definitely faked, 6% say probably), along with 14% of don’t knows. This is a very similar figure to the American example, albeit with slightly different question wording.

On the other hand, 55% of Brits think the moon landings definitely happened, along with 22% who think they probably happened but that there is a chance they were faked.

(If you added all the categories who think there is at least a chance the moon landings were faked or who don’t know, you get 45%).

Majorities of respondents of both sexes, both working class (C2DE) and middle class (ABC1), and in all regions/nations of Britain think the moon landings probably or definitely happened.  There are some slight differences: women are more likely to say they did not know (as so often in surveys), and more likely to say the landings might have been faked, ditto for working class respondents.  But none of these differences is especially large.

The majority of supporters of all four of the largest GB-parties believe that the moon landings happened.  (The sample of GB-wide, and therefore does not contain enough respondents to do analysis of Plaid or the SNP, and there are fewer than 100 Green respondents).

If we create a net figure – the percentage who think the landings occurred minus those who think they did not – we find that Conservative and Lib Dem supporters are the most certain (+77), with Labour coming third (+66).  Supporters of UKIP scored +59. Some 5% of UKIP supporters think the moon landings were definitely faked, and 9% that they were probably faked, both figures are higher than any other party (indeed, the 14% figure is higher than for any other sub-group in the data – by sex, class, region, or age), along with 13% who say they don’t know (also higher than any other party).   Even this difference isn’t especially large, though, and a full 73% of UKIP supporters think the landings either definitely (50%) or probably (23%) happened.

There does not therefore appear to be the partisan difference in conspiracy theories that some studies claim is opening up in the US.

Or maybe I’ve been paid by MI5 to say that?

Philip Cowley

Going down to the wire…

Perhaps the only thing more exciting than the general election is the battle for promotion out of the Vanarama conference. Like the election, this is going down to the wire. With two games left to go, there is just one point between the top two teams fighting it out for the only automatic promotion place, followed by a chasing pack either in, or just outside, the play off zone.

As it happens, the top five clubs are also an interesting guide to the sort of electoral competition we’ll see on 7 May.

We start with Barnet, currently top of the Conference, by just one point. Barnet’s ground is located in Harrow East, which is a Conservative seat. But it is a Conservative seat taken from Labour at the last election, and where the Conservative MP has a majority of 7%, and is the sort of seat Labour need to take back if they are to win the election. (Underhill stadium, where Barnet played from 1907 to 2013, is in the nearby constituency of Chipping Barnet, which is also a Conservative seat, but much more safe).

Currently second in the Conference is Bristol Rovers. The Memorial Ground is in Bristol West (albeit right on the border with Bristol North West). Bristol West is a Lib Dem-held seat, but as well as being a target for Labour (who held it until 2005) it is also one of the Greens’ key target seats. It therefore looks like being a very interesting three-way contest. Bristol North West, where I suspect more Bristol Rovers fans actually live, is a Conservative-held seat, but as with Harrow East, one that Labour lost in 2010 and which they are challenging to retake this time.

In third place, and only recently out of the race for the top spot, we have Grimsby. Just to confuse us Grimsby Town FC’s ground isn’t in the constituency of Great Grimsby – but is in Cleethorpes. Cleethorpes is yet another seat taken by the Conservatives in 2010, and which Labour are looking to win back.  Grimsby itself is even more interesting, because it’s one of the seats where Labour are facing a serious challenge from UKIP. A former safe Labour seat, the latest poll by Lord Ashcroft put UKIP just one point behind Labour.

Eastleigh FC, currently fourth in the conference, also isn’t in the most obvious constituency (Eastleigh), but is in Romsey and Southampton North.  This was a marginal seat at the last election, held by the Lib Dems between 2001 and 2010, but now looks like a fairly safe Conservative seat. Eastleigh itself (where, presumably, most Eastleigh fans actually live?) has been held by the Lib Dems since a by-election in 1994. They even held it at a by-election in 2013, despite their poll ratings falling nationally after going into government in 2010. The by-election in 2013 was caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne, en route to prison for perverting the course of justice.  The Lib Dems initially gained the seat in 1994 at another by-election, after the Conservative MP died as a result of euto-erotic asphyxiation. You can’t say that of many constituencies.

And in fifth place comes Forest Green Rovers, whose ground is in the constituency of Stroud. This is an ultra-marginal seat, with a Conservative majority of just 1299 votes, another seat lost by Labour in 2010 and which they are hoping to get back. The contest in Stroud is complicated by the fact that the previous Labour MP, David Drew, is fighting the seat again. Drew is a Vice-Chairman of Forest Green Rovers,

Given that more than half of constituencies in Britain are basically safe, and are not going to change hands, this is a much more interesting bunch than a representative sample. Apart from Chipping Barnet (where the odds on the Conservatives winning are 1/200) not one can be considered really safe. The safest of the others is Romsey and Southampton North, but even that changed hands at the last election. Of the others, we have several Con-Lab close fights, of the sort that will determine the election, a three-way marginal involving the Greens, and a seat where UKIP are serious contenders.

And just outside of the top five, we have Macclesfield, still in with a chance of making it into the play offs. This is a safe Tory seat, with the incumbent having a majority of almost 12000 votes. Even safe Macclesfield is interesting, though, as it was a seat where in 2010, the Lib Dems came second, but which has probably now reverted to being a Labour-Conservative fight. There will be a lot of seats like Macclesfield in May.

This isn’t quite every type of contest going – the lack of Scottish or Welsh seats is an obvious omission, as is the lack of a safe Labour seat – but it’s not far off.

For those who like gambling and politics and football and gambling (who doesn’t), there are some options here. If you’re a Labour-supporting Barnet fan, you can get combined odds of 2.6 on Labour to win Harrow East and Barnet to win the Conference. A Conservative-supporting Barnet fan can get odds of 3.0 for both of their ships to come in.

The combined odds are even better for Bristol Rovers fans. The Lib Dems to win Bristol West and Bristol Rovers to top the Conference gives you odds of 4.8. Labour to win Bristol West and Bristol Rovers to win the conference gives you 7.5. If you’re a Green-voting Bristol Rovers fan, there are odds of 10.0 for both to come in for you in Bristol West.  If you’re a UKIP-voting Barnet fan there are odds of 76.5 for you in Harrow East – although in this case I’d probably advise you to save your money.

Philip Cowley

 

EAW rebellions benchmarks

No issue has divided the Coalition’s backbenchers – or, more accurately, the backbenchers of one part of the Coalition – quite like Europe.  Whilst not responsible for the largest rebellion of the parliament – that record goes to the House of Lords Bill – the subject has triggered more rebellions than any other issue. Moreover, those rebellions are larger on average than backbench revolts on other issues: roughly twice as large.

Today’s vote on the European Arrest Warrant would need to be a whopper to break records for this parliament.  The largest European rebellion to date has been the 81 Conservative MPs (and one Lib Dem) who on 24 October 2011 voted for a referendum on the EU, along with around 14-19 who abstained. Not only was this the largest rebellion on the subject during this parliament, it was the largest rebellion against the whip on the subject ever.  We are not expecting a rebellion that large today.

More possible is that the revolt will top the second largest European revolt of the parliament: the 53 Conservative MPs who voted in favour of a reduction in the EU budget (on 31 October 2012).

The last session saw more than 110 Conservative MPs vote for an amendment to the Queen’s speech regretting the absence of a referendum bill, but this was – under pressure – made a free vote for backbenchers, and so shouldn’t be compared to today’s whipped vote. The largest EU-rebellions in the last session against the whip consisted of 33 Conservative MPs.

More on MPs’ names…

The second wave of the British Election Study has just been released. With almost 27,000 respondents who answered both the first and second waves and with hundreds of questions, it’s a thing of beauty. The second wave went into the field in May and June this year, and they re-asked the same question about the name of your MP they asked first time. And they get almost identical answers.

Of respondents who responded to both waves of the survey, some 62% got the name of their MP right in both waves;22% admitted they didn’t know both times.

The next biggest category were the 6% of respondents who admitted they didn’t know first time round, but now got it right; and they are partially offset by 4% who got it right last time and now say they know don’t know.

The remaining six percent or so plumped for a variety of the fake names they BES offers or went for don’t know, but in each case this was less than 1% of the sample.

You have to be slightly sceptical about knowledge questions in panel surveys (they are perhaps more likely to get it right second time round – as indeed, marginally, they were), but still this is a much higher figure than the figures usually quoted for knowledge of MPs.

Almost 70% of people know the name of their MP, according to the British Election Study…

What percentage of people know the name of their MP? One recent survey by the Hansard society found the figure was down as low as 22%. That was the lowest figure in the ten years Hansard’s Audit of Political Engagement surveys had been asked. But even at its highest, the figure had only been 44%.

As someone who is absolutely hopeless at remembering names, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the validity of the question.

As part of a paper I’m writing with Rosie Campbell, we’ve looked at the first wave of the current British Election Study, where a similar question is asked – but in a different way.  The BES asked their respondents: ‘which of the following people is the MP in your parliamentary constituency’?  They presented respondents with five fake names (‘Mary Davies’, ‘Susan Stewart’, etc) along with the correct MP for that respondent . All six names were presented in a randomised order. Plus, there was also a Don’t Know and an Other option.

Rather than producing a correct figure down in the 20s or even 40s, some 68% of respondents now got the answer right.

Of course, with multiple choice questions like this, there will be some guessing going on – but the relatively low numbers plumping for each of the wrong options suggests this was not a major problem. Each of the five fake answers attracted fewer than 1% of respondents each, along with 2% who wrote in what they thought was the right answer, and a nice solid 27% who just admitted they did not know.

And, of course, multiple choice questions are easier to work out (as all TV quiz programmes show). But still, they are only easier to work out if you have some basic knowledge to begin with.

A potentially more serious problem is that this question, like the rest of the survey, was asked online – and so people could have cheated, by looking up the correct option.  Astonishingly, this does go on…

But still, even allowing for some guessing and some cheating, I suspect this shows that background knowledge of MPs is higher than the ‘standard’ question reveals. There are a sizeable chunk of people who do know the right answer, but are just rubbish at remembering names.

Teaching about parliament increases trust in parliament

The Westminster Parliament has recently invested considerable resource in developing a series of ‘Parliamentary Studies’ modules throughout British universities. But what difference does the teaching of Parliament make to students’ understanding of the institution? In this study, just published in Politics (sub required, sadly), the results of a series of questions about the institution (both factual and attitudinal) which are asked at the beginning of the module are compared with the results of the same questions asked towards the end of teaching.

We’ve been teaching a final-year module on Parliament since 2002, and have always seen it as a warts and all analysis of the institution. While obviously not free from our own biases, we’ve never had any intention of proselytising or cheerleading for the institution. Indeed, we did wonder whether we would discover that by teaching people about parliament we were in fact helping to undermine faith in the institution. Instead, we discovered increases in both knowledge and support amongst students.

Increases in knowledge are perhaps not surprising (I mean, if we didn’t find them, we’d be a bit worried). But we also showed increases in students deeper understanding – in their understanding of the way the party whips work, for example, as well as increases, slight in some cases, more dramatic in others, in political satisfaction and trust. Students who took our module became more positive about parliament and parliamentarians.

As the article notes, this was one study of one module in one university taught in one way (by one set of tutors), and we’re wary of reading too much into it. The next step is to attempt to repeat the exercise across all 13 institutions currently delivering parliamentary Studies.

Margaret, Margaret, everywhere

You may have noticed that today marks the anniversary of the start of the First World War. It’s been mentioned in passing occasionally in the media. It also marks the anniversary of the birth of the first woman to become a Liberal MP, Margaret Wintringham (b. 4 August, 1879).

There have been 12 British women MPs called Margaret, but they seem to have done everything. Everyone knows that the first (and thus far only) woman Prime Minister – and first (and only) woman leader of the Conservative Party – was called Margaret. But so was the first woman Leader of the Labour Party, Margaret Beckett, during the interregnum between Smith and Blair. The same Margaret went on to be the first (and thus far only) female Foreign Secretary. A different Margaret, Bondfield, was also first female Cabinet Minister.

When I pointed this out on Twitter, others came in thick and fast. The first woman General Secretary of the Labour Party was Margaret (now Baroness) McDonagh (although Sara Barker held the post on an acting basis in 1968). The first woman Treasurer of the Labour Party was Margaret (now Baroness) Prosser. The first female Leader of the Labour Peers was Margaret (now Baroness) Jay. The first woman Chair of the Local Government Association was Margaret (now Baroness) Eaton.  The first (and thus far only) woman chair of the Public Accounts Committee is Margaret Hodge.

You can add to that list the first (and thus far only) female Leaders of Sinn Fein (Margaret Buckley) and the SDLP (Margaret Ritchie).

Margaret was (apparently) the most popular girls name from the 1920s until the 1950s (and the second most popular from 1914), which explains some (most?) of the success, although I have my own reasons for being particularly interested in the name…

If Carlsberg made majorities…

Michael Gove must be a genius. In the last session, the government’s majority averaged 102. In the five Commons votes since Gove became Chief Whip it has averaged 416. It has never fallen below 387, and has risen as high as 467. In his first day in office, he appears to have multiplied the government’s majority by a factor of four.

It is (of course) nothing to do with Michael Gove – who may turn out to be a great Chief Whip, or he may turn out to be a lousy one, who knows? – but because those five votes have all involved the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, rushed through the Commons in a day, enjoying support from the Official Opposition., and with only very limited backbench and minor party opposition. Most of the names of those rebelling will not come as a surprise to many observers, although we note that Labour’s (twice) former Chief Whip, Nick Brown, voted against the Bill’s programme motion, and then appears to have abstained in all subsequent votes.

Still, for all that, Michael Gove can’t claim the government’s largest Commons majority of the parliament. That took place in 2011, on Security Council Resolution 1973. The government then enjoyed a majority of 544.

Private Members – and other rude words in Parliament

A guest post by Matthew Bailey:

Wednesday’s speech by Penny Mordaunt on the Loyal Address has attracted much praise – as well as producing a scramble to find out when the word ‘penis’ was first used in parliamentary debates.  The answer appears to be a Commons adjournment debate in 1952 – on Mental Defectives (Accommodation) – which was, as its name suggests, not quite as amusing as Mordaunt’s speech.  The same applies to the first use of ‘vagina’ in 1961, in another sober debate, this time on the case of Timothy Evans.

Following a research method set out definitively by Flanders and Swann (below) and with all  the thrill of first writing BOOBS on a calculator I sent a quick text to Professor Cowley: ‘if penis, then what else?’. Gratifyingly, he instantly replied: ‘I have already started…’.

But two methodological problems are soon revealed in this vital research area.  Search for ‘tits’, for example, and you will get an awful lot that are bearded and many more that are blue. The same applies to references to ‘crap’ (the dice game, in debates on gambling).  And then there’s the use of words in direct quotations, usually when quoting abuse directed at people, as in many uses of ‘bastard’, say, or ‘shit’ (first mentioned in the Commons in 1979 quoting the phrase ‘No chicken-shit son of a bitch had better try and stop me’), or ‘bollocks’ (1986), or ‘fuck’ (as in ‘on your fucking knees’, in a Lords debate in 1996).

The second problem that such cutting-edge research faces is the misprint – or more precisely, the scanning errors.  A search for ‘piss’, say, will turn up an encouraging 78 results, with the suggestion that the word was first uttered in debate as far back as 1901. But the majority of such references are typographical errors of Acts and motions ‘pissed’ by the House rather than ‘passed’.  The same applies to a reference in 2004 to a ‘marvellous Euro-wanking make work project’.

These problems aside, the first non-avian outing of ‘tits’ appears to have been during a debate on The Times newspaper in 1981 (‘when put together tits and Toryism are marketable commodities’).  ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Bollocking’ now appears to be parliamentary language (used in both 1986 and 1989 in the Commons and in 2000 in the Lords); ‘piss and wind’ was used in both 1969 and 1972 (both times by Liberals, for some reason), and you can find ‘arse’ in Lords debates in 1965 and 1966 and ‘arse over tit’ in the Commons in 1970 (‘[HON MEMBERS: “Oh!”]’).  Shit – as a literal description – now appears to be perfectly acceptable (‘we are not talking about farm animals but are dealing basically with the urban problem of dog shit’).

The trailblazer in this field appears to be the actor turned parliamentarian, Andrew Faulds, who once memorably noted that Norman St John Stevas ‘lacked the capacity to put a bun in anyone’s oven’ when the House was discussing abortion. He stands, for example, as the first person to make a non-gambling reference to crap in 1979:

The real revelation of the evening was the cultural contribution made by our new colleague—I wonder how long he will hang around with those views—the hon. Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden). In my 14 years in this House I have never heard such absolute crap from anybody on any Bench in the House. However, because we want lively contributions, I hope that the hon. Member will join in on future occasions.

I hope that what I said did not cause you any distress, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Needless to say it did, and the Deputy Speaker asked Faulds to ‘use other words’. Faulds replied ‘I have a large vocabulary, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I promise that next time I shall choose my word with much more care’.  So he did, in 1988:

Mr. Faulds: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker——

Mr. Speaker: Well, I will hear it, and then we will get on.

Mr. Faulds: I am most grateful to you, Sir. You will know that most of us in the House—indeed, I would say the whole Chamber, with one or two exceptions—have great admiration for your Speakership and always respond when you make a request that we should withdraw a comment or correct some improper word. Nearly every hon. Member does that. In this unfortunate case, you have made an appeal to the so-called honourable Member and he has not had the guts, the courage or the honesty to respond to it. Unfortunately, I cannot call him an honourable liar, but—we are surrounded by honourable Members this afternoon—I can call him an honourable shit.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member cannot do that; it offends in every possible way. Kindly withdraw, if not the “honourable”, the last word, which I will not repeat.

Mr. Faulds: With my rich vocabulary I could think of two or three worse words, Mr. Speaker, but to oblige you I will withdraw the word “shit”. There are lots of other words that would suitably apply to the hon. Gentleman.

But nothing compares to George Foulkes, who once described Douglas Hogg as a ‘little arrogant shit’. Asked by the Speaker to withdraw ‘that word’, he replied: ‘Which word do you want me to withdraw, Mr. Speaker—little, arrogant or shit?’

UPDATE:

Given that typing rude words into Hansard’s database is a research field in its infancy there were bound to be errors and omissions in any initial report. In addition to the two methodological problems identified above – (a) multiple meanings and (b) misprints – we must now add two others

Firstly mispronunciation by a politician that is subsequently ‘cleaned up’ by Hansard. Anthony Wells helpfully highlighted the classic example of John Speller – then a Defence Minister – who announced to the House, in 2000: ‘We recognised that these cunts in defence medical services had gone too far.’.  In addition, in 2010 Police Minister Nick Herbert responded to opposition questioning with ‘I don’t accept that those cunts…’. Yet in both cases the word ‘cuts’ is what makes it into Hansard.

Secondly, as David Boothroyd pointed out there is the case where Hansard simply do not print the offending word. The prime example here comes from the Kenneth Tynan* of the Commons, Reg Race, who was the first to utter the word ‘fuck’ during a debate on the licensing of sex establishments. Faced with the deprecation of the Deputy Speaker and such unparliamentary language Hansard demured and went with: ‘it was revealed in the national newspapers that Conegate had been operating a list of sexual contacts in the shop, the heading of which was Phone them and … them’

*Kenneth Tynan was not actually the first person to say ‘fuck’ on television. As Joe Moran makes clear in his Armchair Nation, he was the third after playwright Brendan Behan in 1956 and a man in 1959 tasked with painting railings all year round who, when asked whether it was boring, replied: ‘Of course it’s fucking boring’.

The enduring importance of the Earndale by-election

As published earlier today on The Conversation.

Left, Right and Centre: the 1950s film that exposes the political farce of the by-election

By Philip Cowley, University of Nottingham and Matthew Bailey, University of Nottingham

It will be some time in the early hours of Friday morning until we discover whether Newark will join the list of shock by-election results. But whatever the outcome, we doubt it will be as remarkable as the contest that took place 55 year ago in Earndale. An eventual Conservative victory by just 22 votes (after four recounts) the Earndale campaign was also noticeable for the burgeoning love between the Labour and Conservative candidates and for the fact that no sooner had the Conservative candidate been elected than his uncle’s death elevated him to the Lords voiding the result of the election.

Earndale, of course, doesn’t exist. The by-election was the central plot of Left, Right and Centre, a satire/rom-com hybrid from Launder and Gilliet, best known at the time for their series of St. Trinian’s films. It is part of a long tradition of by-elections as a device in political fiction that stretches back to Dickens’ depiction of the Eatenswill election in the Pickwick Papers in 1836 to the parish by-election that is the catalyst for J K Rowling’s recent foray into “grown-up” literature in The Casual Vacancy.

Politics then…

“And do you expect to win the election, Mr Wilcot?” “I do believe I have a good chance … of course there’s a family connection with the seat there…”

The film itself was advertised with the tagline – “You’ll Howl When SEX and POLITICS Collide Head On!” – which could be said to have oversold it somewhat; it’s unlikely that anyone howled with laughter, even back then, and it’s a very 1950s take on SEX (which of course stands for LOVE rather than anything remotely raunchy). But still, the film survives as a revealing slice of political history.

That Left, Right and Centre is very much a film is of its time is at least superficially clear. A young Hattie Jacques plays a Labour campaigner, despairing of the destitution and poverty wrought by the Conservatives – whilst simultaneously being confronted by signs of widespread affluence, although in 1959 affluence was indicated by the profusion of TV aerials rather than satellite dishes.

And now…

Spoiler: Excessive language (of the sort not dreamt of in the 1950s)

The fictional by-election is also remarkable as it is a straight fight, with just two candidates. Newark boasts eleven which now seems unexceptional; in 2008 in Haltemprice & Howden there were 26 candidates crowding the ballot paper. And, to be expected, it’s a good deal cleaner than more recent examples of fictional takes on politics: there’s no top-quality swearing, no 1950’s equivalent of Tucker’s Law. Yet, in terms of substance, the themes touched on in the film deals are distinctly contemporary.

There are carpet-bagger candidates, desperately pretending to be local. There’s the issue of women in politics, the Labour candidate (played by Patricia Bredin, who just two years before had become Britain’s first entry in the Eurovision Song Contest), who is condescendingly cast as the “Girl for you”, even on her own party’s literature. There are the party activists, feeling unloved by the leadership: “We’re the ones what gets ‘em in”, complains the Labour agent. His Tory counterpart replies: “Not that it is ever appreciated”.

There’s the bumbling efforts of TV celebrities who fancy (and are encouraged to by a media-savvy party machine) trying their hand at politics. The Conservative candidate (played by Ian Carmichael) is characteristically a bit of an upper-class twit most famous for his role on a panel game. Announcing his candidature, the best he can manage is: “If one has something to offer then one ought to offer that something, whatever that something may happen to be.”

Machine politics

Very notable too is the dominant role played by manipulative party apparatchiks. Agents, rather than spin doctors in those days, but just like Malcolm Tucker today marshalling bumbling politicians and setting the agenda. Once love blossoms between the two candidates they do their best to stamp it out, and to engineer conflict. “It’s horrible”, complains the Labour agent. “If we was all to behave like this what would happen to parliamentary government?”

But above all, Left, Right & Centre (its very title all-encompassing) is pervaded by a sense of widespread political apathy and a soggy, consensus politics – the parties appearing so similar that it is impossible to tell them apart. From the point where the two candidates meet on the train, and order the same breakfast (“We seem to have the same ideas”, says Carmichael), to a lovely set piece in which there is a mix up over meeting venues, and the Conservative party bigwig delivers the same platitudinous speech (“Let’s keep strong, and look after the old folk”) to both parties – no-one notices, and he receives a standing ovation at both venues – the film plays up the extent to which the occupation of the centre ground leads to a bland politics of consensus and agreement, a childish playing up of minor differences, and a deadening of political discourse.

Plague on both your houses

From the very outset the film displays all the negativity and cynical tropes of representations of politics and politicians that are so familiar today but that can be traced back to Shakespeare. The animated title sequence even ends with a wall upon which are scrawled the words from Romeo & Juliet: “A plague on both your houses”, itself the title and epigraph of an earlier novel on politics written by Philip Gibbs in 1949.

This is followed by a world-weary narration that suggests that the electorate get the politicians they deserve – and it’s an electorate that the film also makes clear does not deserve very much. Apathy prevails, like today people are portrayed as obsessed with celebrities and low-brow culture. The film proceeds to show us bickering party managers, limp and windy politicians and above all a sage defeatism about the point of politics, with politics depicted as a game of, and for, its practioners. A politics devoid of real issues or debate, and of little interest or concern to anyone else. In all of its 89 minutes, there is not a single positive reference to politics or politicians.

Left, Right, and Centre may not be the greatest film in the world (though the one review on Amazon which begins with the words: “Not Very Good…” is a bit harsh). But anyone who thinks today’s politics – and complaints about it – are somehow original should be chained to a chair and made to watch it on a loop until they scream their repentance.

The Conversation

Philip Cowley has received funding from the ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust and the Nuffield Foundation.

Matthew Bailey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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