Tom Sutcliffe: We're entering the age of voter madness

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I know that our grandfathers died to preserve such liberties - and that my non-involvement amounts to a silent affront to social norms – but I remain a stubborn non-voter. No matter how often the relevant authorities remind me of my electoral rights and no matter how urgently my support is solicited by pleading candidates I simply can't be bothered. I leave it to others to shoulder the burdens of participatory democracy. And that delinquency didn't half free up this weekend – which turned out to be a kind of Super Tuesday of telephone voting, with opportunities to affect the outcome of Strictly Come Dancing (or not, as it turned out), The X-Factor final and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Even as a non-voter, though, it was impossible not to notice that some electors treat the process very seriously indeed. In fact some of them treat it with a gravity bordering on derangement - as the comment boards for the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing website revealed, after the procedural glitch had forced the postponement of last week's eviction. One enraged viewer wrote this: "Our votes have been obtained under false pretences and the whole series has been spoilt by your unprecedented decision to freeze the voting. We will not be watching again". Or, to paraphrase, I'm so cross I'm going to punch myself in the face and it's no use trying to stop me.

Had Gordon Brown prorogued Parliament and announced that he would rule as Lord Protector there would probably have been fewer angry blog comments than were generated by the decision to let one mediocre ballroom dancer remain in competition with two slightly less mediocre ballroom dancers. Touch-sensitive MPs – the kind you just have to tap lightly to generate a fulminating quote about the BBC – were powered up to denounce the corporation's competence and honesty. And even where there were no voting scandals it was clear that electoral politics had been considered at a slightly staggering level of detail for honours so trivial.

Chris Hoy's surprise success in the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year programme was put down to the effective mobilisation of the Scottish vote or even – as one keen cyclist explained to me – a sophisticated voter operation which persuaded keen two-wheelers that he stood the best chance of bringing it home for the bicyclists. Having fatally failed to be pictured astride a racing bike (how her campaign team must be kicking themselves now) Rebecca Adlington's share of the vote softened and the favourite had to settle for third.

It can only get worse. Any halfway competitive contestant for Strictly Come Dancing will have to retain an independent psephologist and a campaign manager at the same time as they begin stumbling through the steps of the Paso Doble. Focus groups will test off-the-cuff remarks with panels of floating voters to ensure that vital votes aren't lost through a slip of the tongue and analysts will be retained for their intimate knowledge of couch potato psychology. After all, as Hillary found in New Hampshire, a well-timed blub can be electoral gold. And the next step after that is the electoral lawsuit -- court orders to get the BBC to divulge its telephone records and appeals and counter-appeals as results are overturned, reinstated, and then overturned again.

John Sergeant's decision to get out early has never looked wiser. It won't be long before the BBC is forced – by viewer hysteria and political opportunism – to follow him. Because all the signs are that we simply can't be trusted to distinguish between votes that might actually matter and those that are just supposed to be a bit of fun.

The incredible credibility of a dodgy deal

I enjoyed the appearance by Nicola Horlick on the Today programme yesterday, talking about the embarrassing fact that the American investor Bernie Madoff has allegedly made a big chunk of her clients' money vanish like the morning mist.

It wasn't her assault on this Mr Merdle of Wall Street that made my morning. Or her handbagging of the American regulators, or her insistence that investors in her Bramdean Alternatives fund should be jolly grateful that they've only lost 4 per cent in current market conditions – but the formulation she came up with when Adam Shaw asked her whether the Madoff fund had looked like a credible enterprise from the outside.

"It looked incredibly credible!", she replied indignantly. Or – as we laymen sometimes say – credibly incredible. Anyway – at a time when the solidest banks have been shivering ominously and we've learnt that nothing and no-one can be trusted, it seemed like a good motto for future investors.

Your call is being held in a queue, Bishop ...

Last week the Bishop of Pretoria, Johannes Seoka, added his voice to that of John Sentamu and Archbishop Tutu in calling for change in Harare. He said that it was now "an opportune moment for all church leaders... to call on God to cause the removal of Mugabe from the office of the President of Zimbabwe".

Like all calls to prayer in bad times, this rather begged the question of what God has been up to for the last five or six years, as the country collapsed and millions suffered. I know He's supposed to be slow to anger, but this is getting embarrassing. Is He sitting there tapping his fingers and thinking, "Right, if the cholera deaths rise above 100,000 then I really will do something"? Or has he just not noticed at all? Did Zimbabwe get buried in His overflowing in-tray, so that it needs to be tactfully drawn to His attention?

If God existed, then he shouldn't really need nagging like this to do the right thing. As he doesn't, men of goodwill like the bishop might do better to address themselves to earthly powers. They've also shown an apparently God-like indifference to the catastrophe on their doorstep, but they might at least acknowledge receipt of the message.

* Both President Bush and Muntadar al-Zaidi are to be congratulated for the part they played in You Tube's latest hit video – Shoe Throwing Incident. OK, Mr al-Zaidi wasn't far away, but it can't be easy keeping a straight aim if you fear you may get gunned down by over-zealous secret service agents. And, yes, Bush would have had al-Zaidi's backswing as a warning, but he still moved like a ninja getting out of the way.

There may be readers disappointed that face and footwear didn't actually connect, but whatever you might feel about the karmic justice of such an outcome, it would have spoiled the slapstick purity of the moment.

It's impossible not to feel a wince of empathy for someone who gets a shoe in the face, whoever it is. As it is though, no retrospective of the Bush presidency will be complete without this distillation of public opinion in large areas of the Arab world – and we'll be able to enjoy it guilt free.