Election zeitgeist: Blackberry world does not get iPhone world
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 Alexa.com 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.