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Election zeitgeist: Blackberry world does not get iPhone world

Paul Mason | 12:47 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

Here's what I think is happening in this election: what's moving the polls, the zeitgeist, causing tabloid editors to go into Pravda mode and seasoned commentators to shrug their shoulders with incomprehension.

It goes deeper than Cleggmania - and it does, if the trends observed carry through, presage a big change in the UK's electoral landscape.

1) It's been a long time since 2005 and the conversation has changed.

In 2005 there was no Facebook, Twitter, iPhone. Some televisions were HD ready but there was no HD. iTunes was less than a year old. London had not won the Olympics yet; the 7/7 bombings and the 21/7 bombings lay in the future. The Libdem leader was Charles Kennedy and the Tory leader, lest we forget, Michael Howard.

Why does this matter? Because politics is about telling, and believing, a story.

The technological revolution that we're in the middle of is changing social life and social attitudes.

I've just walked through London's Soho: grown men sitting in the open air wearing giant Sennheiser headphones, sipping flat-white coffee, composing, what? Symphonies, club anthems, klezmer? In the DVD store Fopp (saved from administration during the financial meltdown) top titles include: The Thick of It Series 3; District 9; Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom enjoying an ironic hip revival in the age of internet porn.

And here's the question: does that generation capable of laughing at the Thick Of It; that never lived through the anti-apartheid era but has watched District 9; that has taken control of content creation and is happy to walk around wearing ironic t-shirts categorising their own sex lives etc... does that generation believe it is in any way represented by mainstream politics?

Anecdotally, apart from the anoraks who are involved in politics, I would say not. In 2005 we were about five years into the Broadband revolution; (I wrote my first blog for Newsnight on 16 June 2005).

We are now 10 years into that revolution. The top sites on the web traffic monitor are mainly social networking or self-published content sites - which were almost nowhere in 2005.

Those who wonder whether the social media will "affect the outcome" of the election are asking the wrong question. It is affecting the outcome of everything, from having an idea, buying a pair of jeans or going on a date. It is not the dweeby tweets of campaigners, or the sad slanging matches between beer-fuelled political hacks that matter.

What matters is that a new conversation is out there, and the first politician to look vaguely like they knew this got a (what may be short term) boost from this.

2) The two biggest things in mainstream ideology collapsed.

First, the economic bubble burst. Then the expenses scandal broke. And it was not just any old bubble: the economy post 1992 was built on rising debt, rising house prices, rising real wages. The fact that this happened alongside the tech revolution I've described above injected an aura of success into our major institutions that has now vanished.

It all collapsed in 2008-9. The financial model that has dominated the UK economy broke down; and then it was revealed that large numbers of MPs were using their parliamentary status to feather their nests on an unimagined scale.

I know from experience how compartmentalised this is in the minds of media and political folk. Once the expenses scandal broke, an economic crisis story had to be really huge to get on TV. We saw these as two events. But in the minds of many they seem to have merged. If you went into a pub and said "we are ruled by a corrupt elite of politicians in the pockets of corrupt bankers" about the only two places where you would get chucked out of the pub would be Westminster and Canary Wharf.

Do not mix this up with the "death of deference" narrative. That had begun already and was nearly a generation old. There's been an acute and rapid collapse in trust in major institutions. If you watch an old episode of Father Ted you will see, amazingly prefigured by 10 years, the whole story of the Catholic Church's struggle to come to terms with the paedophile priest scandal. It may be that, with The Thick of It, we look back to that as signalling a sea-change in British politics - chronicling in merciless detail the ludicrousness of the party machine and spin system.

The point is, I am picking up from many parts of the electoral landscape, the nostrum that "a hung parliament would be a good thing": for some because it would signal a move to PR and the end of the two-party system; for others because it would annoy the City of London.

3) Lots of other stuff has changed.

a) Barack Obama came to power because he understood some of the changes - but seeing a black, liberal President in the Whitehouse has changed the way a lot of Brits look at both America and the world.
b) In 2005 East European migration had only just begun. By 2009 1.5 EE migrants had entered Britain and according to the EHRC, 700,000 were working here at any one time. It has now entered mainstream political discourse that this has adversely impacted the living standards of lower-income British workers (though the economic evidence for this remains contested).
c) After 7/7 the whole tenor of the debate about Islam and terror changed, indeed intensified. A real and tangible hostility to the economic and social impact of migration is there everywhere you go: the BBC's polling, and many bloggers, validate this as the under-expressed issue in the current election.
d) The withdrawal from Iraq and the mounting losses in Afghanistan have changed public consciousness about the role of the UK armed forces.
e) I could go on. Some cultural commentator somewhere probably has a full list. Add your own bullet points.

4) How does this impact?

I don't think that with Cleggmania we have seen the last of the surprises resulting from the collision between the political class, in their suits and Blackberries, and the electorate, with its trainers and iPhones.

And don't think I'm being metropolitanist here: if you think the north, Scotland, Wales and working class areas in general are in some way removed from the big cultural changes the tech revolution has unleashed, stop watching Corrie and get out some-more.

The most obvious second surprise could be how this translates into support for non-mainstream parties. Actually, and one of my City bond-analyst contacts said what's really worrying the finance guys is a "chaotic" hung parliament where there's maybe one Green, two Respect and one or two BNP members of the Commons, with strong showing from Plaid and the SNP. Right now the political class is thinking Cleggmania might go away, or recede, leaving the old two-party slugging match to get back into business. Even some Libdems fear this will happen. What they have not even begun to plan for is if Cleggmania begins to give the electorate "permission" to just break away from the whole mainstream party circus. I don't predict this, but you would have to say it becomes more possible.

Managing the coming fiscal crisis: Whether the bond vigilantes and the forex guys stage some kind of wobbly before or just after 6 May, we are still in the mother of all fiscal tightenings. When I meet top bankers in private, the words "social unrest" are always on their lips. They fear the electorate, having not been told the full extent of the cuts necessary, will simply reject them once they are unleashed. It is not a question of trade unionism - though the PCS union now looks like the strongest and most militant of all the unions, and has no ties to Labour. What they fear is something more like the fuel protest, with themselves as the target.

5) The big question for the politicians: do they get it?

If you buy my analysis, then the big question for the politicians - left, right or centre - is do they get it? You can make your own judgements on that, but even if you were being charitable you would have to say probably not all of them do. The tabloid editors, issuing their concocted weird propaganda stories, are proving spectacularly that they do not get it.

The more I think about this, the more I come to this conclusion. It's people with Blackberrys who don't get it.

They've had privileged access to high-speed transglobal comms for the best part of a decade but they have never downloaded an app (my own BBC Blackberry is corporately locked down to prevent its highly limited store of fun stuff being utilised). People with iPhones get it; young people looking at very limited job prospects get it.

And they're becoming highly interested in politics. The more I monitor the twittersphere's response to Newsnight the more I am convinced of this. Our celebrated AB over-45 audience, (which would make us a prime target for Volvo and Stannah Stairlift adverts if we ever took commercial breaks) is being joined by a bunch of young adults who - again much more violently than in 2005 - simply hate the sight of men in suits shouting over each other.

What's happening is that Blackberry world is colliding with iPhone world and finding out that, in the digital age, five years is a political eon.


  • Comment number 1.

    'When I meet top bankers in private'

    Anyone giving lessons in making a citizen's arrest ?

    broadband + internet on the move = were becoming borg without resistance.

  • Comment number 2.

    And another good essay.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have a blackberry and I am only 40 years old and probably relate to CB audience (I am an engineer after all albeit quite a senior one)

    Where does that leave your theories above?

    Loved the piece last night on engineering (predictably) nice to know someone 'gets it'. A nation build on intangible non-jobs while neglecting its engineering foundations and heritage.

    As the non-jobs start to disappear along with the government cuts the high technology factory floor comes into view as on your piece. A huge space, generating massive ammounts of useful engineering components, staffed by about a dozen people all in their forties and fifties with not an apprentice in sight. They are too busy doing psychology degrees combined with medi-evil history and media studies and getting themselves into huge debt in the process.

    There is still an opportunity out there to turn this round but the window is closing very fast now from the potential to be an organised transition to one which will be a chaotic one.

    The fact that we need so few people to generate lots of useful components can be used construct a new sustainable economic model which does not require people to work as much as they do now in pointless jobs and will free us to enjoy our short time here all the more.

    I hope that process starts with ahung parliament and moves on from there, but my goodness, there is an awful long way to go from where we are now, but go there we will, one way or another.

    The frustration of 'the engineer' is that he is trained to see that challenge and consider pragmatic ways to overcome it, challenges which they find interesting and worthwhile, potentially bringing tremendous benefit for generations to come.

    The engineer can see that, but can not do anything about it in a system governed by lawyers, bankers, estate agents and media moguls.

    That is why the BBC is uniquely important, providing it maintains its remit to be an unleveraged organisation, which i think, at the moment, it only partly does.

    The world will change, it will change soon and this nation will be at the heart of it, as it was when this phase in global history all started some 300 years ago so its de-construction will begin here also.

    It is up to us if the re-construction also begins here and if we are mature enough for that to be a managed process rather than one that is enforced upon us by external influence.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is by far the best post I've read on anything in 2010. Bang on the money.

  • Comment number 5.

    More restraint needed on the extrapolation pedal. Is there a game change happening or is it a November rocket that will fall to the soggy ground burned out?
    Not much future for idealogical politics but a swelling generation of obsessive and enthusiastic consumers embracing the commoditisation of experience and relationships.

  • Comment number 6.

    There is no need to go to this level to understand what is going on.

    1. The New Labour mirage was a lie built upon a misconception. "You are rich" because of "Public Services".

    2. Brown has run out of money, the UK has run out of credit, New Labour has run out of luck.

    3. Of the 3 architects, Blair has gone to make money, Brown has achieved his ultimate objective and has been found very much wanting & Mandleson has had to operate from the House of Lords.

    4. Brown thinks, speaks and acts in an amazing world of Orwellian Doublespeak. He cannot communicate outside a very small coterie and certainly not with normal people. The more he says, the less the British people believe him. He, above all, is the cause of the people's rejection of politics. His electoral power base is alienated & confused and many of them will not accept the Tory party; white working class people, public sector workers, immigrants. He can't browbeat a TV audience, he cannot continue to lie with impunity, he is yesterdays man.

    This turmoil is mainly because the power trip, that has taken government expenditure from 33% (in 1999 under TORY plans) to over 50% barely a decade later and has doubled national debt and plans to redouble it again, is now over.

    All the rest is ephemeral.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is an excellent blog Paul - pat yourself on the back. Hang on, I will do it for you.

    It has long been talked about within UK IT circles that one reason why Blair allowed Brown to go after and destroy the then booming UK IT industry was because, quite simply, they didn't understand IT at all - they don't get it.

    Stories are told within IT circles of IT Consultants being brought in to teach Blair and Brown how to switch on a laptop long after millions of British workers throughout the UK had got over their angst with Windows, with logging on and with email.

    The dividing line between those who are IT literate and those who were not was, up until a few years ago, quite stark - it literally could be a year or two at most in age difference that meant you understood and used email, the Worldwide Wibble and all its forms on a daily basis and, well, between believing that the Internet was just a passing fad.

    The Media obsession with the film 'Avatar' was interesting - people over 40ish and not Internet or technology aware were raving about how wonderful and stunningly lifelike the graphics in 'Avatar' are. But anyone who has been playing online games on a playstation, xbox or PC for, oh, the past 15 years just saw the same graphics that they see when they log on nightly to play 'Quake', 'Call of Duty', 'Doom' or a 101 other interactive online games. The 'Avatar' Media loving luvvies were simply years behind the curve to tens if not hundreds of millions of people.

    Your mention of having a locked-down Blackberry is so typical of the control mentality that exists within many businesses - and within the minds of many who work within business. Here you have an empowering technology but you are not empowered to use it - how ironic and how stupid is that?

    But that control mentality is so clearly seen in the political system of the UK - heck, both Labour and the Torys are now wishing they had never allowed the Liberals to take part in the leaders' debate! Allow!? How dare they! Such is the small-minded control mentality so dominant in their minds that they actually think such things and, worse, then verbalise them as if it is their right... and the rest of us are looking at them thinking "What planet are they on?".

    For centuries British Society has been built upon the Class System, on knowing your place in the pecking order and secrets - don't let the people know meaning that we - them - can control them. But the Internet has changed all that - forums, blogs and messageboards exchange information within seconds now. If something is embargoed in the UK you can usually find the information online on the WWW within a few hours. What is really happening here is the true democratisation of the United Kingdom - and the politicians don't like it.

    Cisco Systems, the company without whom arguably there would be no Internet, has the motto of 'empowering the Internet generation' - that generation is now empowered and the British politicians just don't like it. They don't even get it!

  • Comment number 8.

    Paul - surely the reason the politicians are maintaining silence over the real extent of the cuts and austerity is because they fear the citizens of planet iPhone. These are people who have been brought up with high expectations. In many cases, they will not have lived through any real hardship. They have seen living standards increase year on year for decades and still can't comprehend that this will not continue. They are only now beginning to realise what the the effects of the financial crisis are. Personally, I don't think that many of these citizens have got it yet - although if they spent more time on their iPhones looking in the right places, they would find that the information is all out there. Therefore I don't think they will have a substantial affect of this election. The big question for me is how these people will react once the austerity really kicks in. What I think we are about to witness is the decimation of the middle classes as the burden of the financial crisis and the countries economic woes is rested on their shoulders. Will the citizens of iPhone rise up? Are these people really capable of social unrest or will they simply complain about it life on blogs like this?

  • Comment number 9.

    looking at the totally misjudged tory billboards one must say someone doesn't know what they are doing. talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

    cameron has been crippled by a tory self indulgence campaign in what makes 'them' feel good.

    as we know usually the intelligent, creative or the sound philosophical do not go into politics. the ambitious do.

  • Comment number 10.

    Somebody posted an interesting link on Peston's blog covering some of Paul's blog subject...


    (it's a bit of an advert as well btw)

    Radio 4's Today programme (yesterday) also reported that there was a last minute surge of under 25's registering to vote following last week's primeministerial debate.

  • Comment number 11.

    As always Paul, great stuff. Whilst I’m not sure that the iPhone owning classes are quite so numerous outside of London as a walk round Soho would suggest, the general idea that people are sickened and repelled by Westminster politicians is spot on. A parliament is supposed to be the place where our representatives come to talk, to parley. But what we have with the two party system is massive groupthink; six hundred odd (very!) people drawn from a narrow political class obsessively discussing their own affairs, whilst the rest of the country looks on, baffled. Thus we have the parties agreeing on what will be discussed: much heat and anger over trivial differences in taxation, while big issues like immigration are never debated. Similarly, we had the spectacle of one million people marching through London against the Iraq war and being totally ignored by parliament.

    What’s currently lacking is a means for people’s anger and alienation to be channeled --- Cleggmania is only tapping into a small part. But when that means is found, watch out.

  • Comment number 12.

    "we are ruled by a corrupt elite of politicians in the pockets of corrupt bankers" all too true, as might have been said two hundred years ago. But for all the new stuff, new apps, old hatreds of bubble-blowing elites - where`s the new politics ?
    Still worse, where is the new economics ? Your view of de-industrialized Britain from Stoke to St.Davids gave precious little hint of where mass manufacturing employment is going to come from. Little knots of green entrepreneurs just haven`t the time to be the Lunar Society of the next industrial wave. What is to become of the inhabitants of Britain`s coalfields ?

  • Comment number 13.


    I am no fan of 'global' - small is beautiful, because humans are 'small'. But whenever the 'need' for an EU state has been trotted out (or worse: global governance) as a war stopper, I have pointed out how much COMMUNICATION (bodies and minds) has increased since WW11. Awareness of 'them' beats bombs, every time. But warfare is still ingrained, it will take longer - note the gun-carriage and associated militaria, for the Polish President - oh the black irony.

  • Comment number 14.

    Flash-mob the City or Westminster first?

    ...and wearing red shirts as well...ala Thailand.

  • Comment number 15.


    "Radio 4's Today programme (yesterday) also reported that there was a last minute surge of under 25's registering to vote following last week's primeministerial debate."

    You imply a pool of unregistered 'eligibles' DJ. Will they all be rounded up after the election? Non-registration is, surely, a criminal offence?

  • Comment number 16.

    So many voters have no idea about what is going on and the implications to their own lives.

    I know a woman of 55 who thought she would retire at 60. How many others of her age think this without realising it will be retirement at 65? Where are the extra jobs to keep a larger workforce productive?

  • Comment number 17.

    Thought provoking.

    As expected there would be people trying to make a crass political statement. So here's my crass political statement: it is quite clear from the failure of their budget "crowdsourcing" and the failure of the cashgordon web site that it was the Conservatives who just do not get it. In the case of the former, the content of the "crowdsourcing" website was deathly boring, and the few people who could be bothered to comment found the website had not been user tested and was unwieldy to use. It failed. The latter case was an example of "crowdsourcing" and an example of a large, disparate and uncontrolled (and not organised) group of people coalescing into a group that gets results. The fuel protest was similar.

    The whole iPhone/Blackberry issue has been covered by many people. In my experience it is public sector, or establishment, organisations that have Blackberries and people from the private sector are more likely to have iPhones (usually purchased by themselves). If you have bought the phone with your own money you decide what goes on it.

    Finally I think I should point you toward the Social Attitudes Survey published earlier this year. They give a graph compiled over the last 20 years of the political parties that people identify with. There is a small blip (2008/09) in the line for people identifying with the Conservatives. But it is a blip: the trends over a longer period are much more important.

    Excluding the blips, since the mid 1990s support for all three major parties have dropped. Yes, there is a bigger fall in Labour than Conservative, but that is to be expected for the party in power. The interesting lines are Others and None, particularly the latter. The fact is that the trends show that the proportion of people identifying with the big two has now fallen to the **same level** as the proportion of people who have no political identification. People are simply turned off politics.

  • Comment number 18.

    Great blogging - thanks

  • Comment number 19.

    It is quite interesting to see the difference between North America and the UK. I have both, a Blackberry and an iPhone so what would my political leanings be?

  • Comment number 20.

    35 minutes into the 'great debate' and numerous web forums, messageboards are full of posts about the three leaders talking about green issues, solar panels and wind turbines which frankly, judging by the web posts, simply are not on the radar for most people.

    The country is in economic turmoil, people are losing their jobs, or in fear of losing their jobs, and debt is at record highs yet these three think that the choice of wind turbine or a solar panel on your roof is top of our issues.

    Shows how out of touch they are.

    Now it is the Pope - yes, this is a gripping concern for the majority.

    You would have thought that Sky and Bolton, with access to the wider BBC audience and a chance to shine, would have chosen more cutting and topical questions? What next - a question on The X-Factor?

  • Comment number 21.

    19 MikeV: -

    I asume you must swing either way?

    The 'ITV Worm' did not like "Call Me Dave", was mostly positive about Gordon and it seemed to like Nick most except when he talked about immigration and Trident.

    Both Cameron and Brown had positive 'worms' when they talked about keeping the bomb. Us Brits love our bomb!

  • Comment number 22.

    Oh dear, the 'ITV Worm' is only 20 people.

    Think it is time that ITV upgraded their 28.8K modem.

  • Comment number 23.

    The only reason people have not shown more anger towards bankers and what they have done to our country is because the pain has not really started yet. Its like we are in the eye of the storm at the moment, we've been through the recession and survived...and we have the pain of the cuts to come. Most people have been cushioned from the worst of the recession because of all the borrowing and they think 'Well that wasn't so bad...what was all the fuss about?'. And they think 'If that was the worst recession since the 1930s then all these cuts won't be as bad as people are saying either'. Most people still think the cuts can be achieved simply by cutting back on 'waste', that is how informed people are and how honest the politicians have been with us. And this in an election campaign when they are all over the airwaves 24-7, so its not like they haven't had the opportunity is it? How are people going to react when they are told they have to work until they are 68 or 70 when bankers are getting million pound bonuses every year and walking off with fat pensions in their 50s? And thats just the tip of the iceburg....Its one thing when its theoretical, quite another when it becomes reality.

  • Comment number 24.

    A good explanation as to how objective conditions shape consciousness.

    The poor/excluded want to fight back in any way they can at the obvious injustice that the bankers & politicans represent.

  • Comment number 25.

    After Thatcher and on through to now, we've seen a really massive growth in tertiary education along with technology.

    Now that they young graduates are no better off than a school leaver was in the early days of Thatcher in terms of employment opportunities, just what were the political classes expecting. Did they really think all the bright young things, all those who've studied hard, would not use those developed thinking skills, that access to knowledge?

    They've missed the growing ground swell of activism and utterly misundestood the reason why newspaper sales are dropping like lead IMHO. Just look at Libel Reform demands and the group of people interested - it's been there and, and it doesn't involve just the fresh graduates either. How many other little waves of discontent are been coming ashore?

  • Comment number 26.

    20. At 8:43pm on 22 Apr 2010, tawse57

    National Secular Society has just reported this:

    Offensive" atheist Harry Taylor gets six months (suspended). Looks like we now have dangerous new blasphemy law

    Religion might not be top of all our agendas, but I think free speech is pretty important to us all. Religion has long tentacles...
    What no one touched on last night was the idea that Dawkins and Hitchens are investigating the possibility of having the pope arrested for his role in the scandals affecting the Vatican.

  • Comment number 27.

    7. At 2:38pm on 22 Apr 2010, tawse57

    Great post.
    I had to teach one rather influential decision maker and his wife who was successful in her own right in business how to turn on their PC, what emails were. I realised their degrees weren't any good because they hadn't learned how to think, how to solve problems for themselves. It took two long years until I got to the stage where I could blow their minds with the concept of attachments!

    3. At 2:22pm on 22 Apr 2010, Jericoa

    They've noticed manufacturing has gone just like they noticed the building industry was destroyed in the early 80s. Wonder what they will do different this time...

    My guess is a lot of non-jobs that are labelled green.
    And a further claim to biosciences. However, the big two have failed to notice what really goes on in biological sciences. It has been recognised by the Lib Dems though - there are nowhere near enough job opportunities for those with PhDs and they are therefore pushing to have the number of available places halved. And they are right to have that as a policy. The truth is advances in bioscience are slow, of extreme risk with long term outcomes that so often can not be defined (where is that crystal ball...) expensive, largely dependent on university infrastructure along with government funding. Too many are still landing on the dole or leaving the country and almost all of them earn less than school teachers.

    We have a population who have little if any understanding of science and that represents a huge problem - indeed I'd say our business leaders, media and general public are anti-science if my experience is anything to judge by.

    The problem with locked blackberries is easily solved. Buy your own to circumvent the attitude of both the boss and the tyranny of the network administrator.

  • Comment number 28.

    Superb essay. I think PM really nails something important here - something only a very few politicos get, and even then quite dimly.

  • Comment number 29.

    So the top bankers fear a hung parliament and the electorate rejecting necessary cuts.

    I would have thought the electorate are more likely to accept cuts from two or more parties working together (e.g. Lab and LibDems, recently having received 60% of the electorates votes) than one party that had only 35% of the vote.

    A good blog post, more like this please.


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