PsychoGeography #82: Fear and loathing on the Election trail

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During the 1997 election Ralph Steadman and I worked together much as we do now; sometimes I would supply the words and Ralph would set down the images they summoned up, other times he'd draw and I'd write.

During the 1997 election Ralph Steadman and I worked together much as we do now; sometimes I would supply the words and Ralph would set down the images they summoned up, other times he'd draw and I'd write. There was only one problem, Ralph had taken a vow not to draw politician's faces. Years of labouring in the cartoon mine had taught him a tough lesson: no matter the uglification he visited on the pols' porcine countenances, they'd still be back baying for more. Such is the vanity of the political class that they'd even ask to buy these portrayals, which hacked away at their latex smiles to reveal the steely jaws beneath. So Ralph resolved that he would henceforth only draw their legs.

Now, it appears, he's gone a step further, and will only deign to picture the arseholes of the three main party leaders. I don't want to say too much about Ralph's approach - except that I completely endorse it. In my experience, the self-regard of politicians knows no limit, and the devilish compact they enter with a complacent visual media only serves to confirm them in the belief that they are beautiful and principled people. Truly, politics is pop music for the facially challenged.

I well remember running across the road during the 1997 campaign to shake Tony Blair's hand. I wanted to feel his heft - to get a sense of how he was embodied. He was tall, the handshake was firm, and the physog' was layers deep in thick, orange compact. Already Blair was staring into the long lens of History - and he wanted to look his telegenic best.

In Britain MPs make great capital out of how they are dedicated to their constituencies, how rooted they are in their local community. The truth is that they can't wait to get away from Little Knackering and strut about Westminster - the only village they truly care about. The very constituencies they represent are historically gerrymandered to ensure the primacy of the two, main parties. They fiddle their expenses so that they can have two homes courtesy of you, the taxpayer; and they yearn for advancement, so that a government post will give them the perfect excuse to escape the sticks still more. At the top of the greasy pole they get a city-centre gated community of their very own, and effectively say goodbye to Sedgefield forever.

The campaign trail affords us a glimpse of this process being vastly accelerated. In their own minds politicians are on the stump, among the people, down and dirty in the native sod. In reality, the main party leaders are aspiring Catherine the Greats, perfect little communities are assembled in front of their progress, only to be demolished once their imperial eye has moved on. I've seen this in action when covering election campaigns: the apparatchiks and cadres move in, the venue is swept by security wonks, camera angles are calculated and troublemakers kicked out.

It's not that the party machine requires that each location be picture perfect - far from it, they crave authenticity in order for it to frame them. The thing is that they destroy this authenticity the very second they pitch up; in truth, the most uncorrupted setting for a political candidate is a mass rally of the faithful.

Campaigning at a school in Enfield in 2001, Tony Blair was caught unawares by a feisty, British Asian sixth-former. There he was, the Man of the People, hammering it out point-by-point, when suddenly this apparition arose before him, demolishing Blair's points as speedily as he tried to make them. Watching the grey patch of sweat expand on the back of Blair's white shirt was the most satisfying sight I've ever witnessed in British politics.

This time around the New Labour machine haven't wanted to risk any of that. The Emperor has been ferried from Potemkin village to Potemkin hospital, and before he arrives a rigged rent-a-crowd of "ordinary people" are brought in to wave little flags. Hell - he hasn't even travelled on a bus, but swooped in by helicopter. There's no longer a proper press corps to speak of, but instead journalists have been "embedded", much in the same way that they were with the army in Iraq. The analogy says it all, because undoubtedly the cadres were hoping that these trusties would begin to sympathise with the man upon whom their jobs depended - just as the hacks did in Iraq. With the ensuing loss of focus - the thinking presumably went - they'd cease to notice how much of what he said was utter shit.