Politicians’ fortunes are now like football managers’ – at the mercy of phone-in culture

The electorate is ill-served when Cameron or Miliband is up one minute and down the next

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As anyone who has tuned to it lately for more 7.3 seconds will have been breathlessly reminded, Radio 5 Live is celebrating a birthday. It was 20 years ago that this leader of the BBC’s laddish wing was launched, and introduced a hungry public to the football phone-in known, after one of its wavelengths, as 6-0-6.

Its progression has not been a pleasing one. What was hosted in the early days by Danny Baker – a preposterously gifted ironist, humourist and spinner of entrancing verbal webs – now lies in the capacious gob of that self-aggrandising laureate of witless bombast, Alan Green.

It was once the contention of quantum physicists that the shortest recordable measurement of time was the gap between hearing the words, “And now on Radio 4, it’s Midweek with Libby Purves” and lungeing for the off switch. The consensus has changed.

It now cites the interval between hearing a caller whose team has lost a couple of games tell Mr Green that the manager is a muppet – “straight up, Alan, mate, we’d be better of with Miss Piggy; in fact they might as well demolish the stadium and turn it into a toxic waste dump” – and making the lunge.

Since the early 1990s confluence of Gazza’s tears and Nick Hornby’s masterful memoir Fever Pitch melodramatised football and made it a seemly source of dinner-party discussion for the graduate classes, the game’s hold over politics has grown exponentially.

Mr Tony Blair’s skilful show of keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan was greeted as a major breakthrough for him, and within a few years he handed Alex Ferguson a knighthood almost before Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s Champions League winner had rebounded from the Bayern Munich net. Today it would be virtual political suicide for any would-be prime minister to confess uninterest in football.

Nowhere can the imperium of this prevailing 6-0-6 culture be more clearly observed than in what passes for political analysis. On Saturday, Arsene Wenger, having latterly regained his old magus status thanks to Arsenal’s renaissance, had his head demanded by phone-in callers after an admittedly wretched 6-0 hiding at Chelsea.

Four days earlier, Ed Miliband – who was increasingly seen beforehand as a bold and able Labour leader heading for a narrow election win – became a fool and a grave electoral liability thanks to one admittedly poor Budget response. Largely because of a trifling rhetorical stumble, a bunch of self-important Labour supporters took the drastic step of demanding a clearer political agenda. Elsewhere, with the poll lead narrowing, commentators herald his doom.

Casting the mind back a full week, it was David Cameron, teetering on the tightrope while trying to square the twin needs to neutralise Ukips and not entirely to vacate the centre ground, who was the muppet. Next week, for one reason or another, he will be Kermit again – and if not then, undoubtedly in May when Ukip’s success in the European elections will reopen the Labour lead and cause his authority to be questioned.

So quickly and violently does the pendulum swing, and so influenced are commentators (me as much as anyone, but who doubts this writer’s idiocy?) by the latest result, that examining the fundamentals have been largely abandoned as non-existent.

In fact, in one vital area at least, the fundamentals could not be plainer. The Labour donor John Mills may believe that Conservative and Labour economic policies are very similar, but on the potentially crucial question of wealth redistribution, the choice is Manichean. David Cameron, as his revival of Osborne’s 2007 inheritance tax bribe confirms, wants to give as much as possible to those who already have money. Labour, as confirmed by the adoption of the mansion tax confirms, wishes to take more money from them. How much more basic could the difference be?

Yet in the 6-0-6 age, when internet addiction and 24-hour news has diminished concentration spans and created a craving for perpetual drama, it is on the banalities – Miliband’s perceived weirdness; Cameron’s schooling – that almost all of us focus. The appetite for crisis is insatiable, so every passing setback is inflated into a threat to the victim’s survival, at least for a few days until the other guy suffers a thumping and becomes the Wenger du jour.

If the smallness of the debate mirrors the politicians in the age of the pygmy technocrat, we and our masters richly deserve each other. But if every Dispatch Box stumble or snarky reference to Eton must be treated as a defining cataclysm, we should formalise the triumph of 6-0-6 over political discourse by replacing Jeremy Paxman with Robbie Savage, Andrew Neil with the equally Wildean Mark Lawrenson, and on election night David Dimbleby – may God have mercy on my soul for writing these words – with Alan Green.

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