Downing Street… The Final Frontier…

So, on Thursday evening I and a group of friends bravely gathered to boldly go where several men have gone before: to stay up all night watching the election, with only the aid of enormous quantities of alcohol.

Election coverage is always fun, as attested to by the numerous parodies of it produced over the years. We watched some of these to get us in the mood. Monty Python’s Election Night Special was followed by Blackadder the Third’s opening ‘Pitt the Younger’ episode, and then some vintage Party Political Broadcasts. Notable was the Green Party one which seemed to consist solely of children being humiliated by having chemical waste dropped on them, the Conservative one which didn’t need words, just a montage of Maggie Thatcher being great to stirring music, and the Conservative ‘car metaphor’ one, in which every party was represented by a car. Labour were of course an old fashioned VdP Princess, the SDP/Liberal Alliance were (of course) a bubble car with two steering wheels, and the Tories somehow thought it would look good if they were an Austin Montego. Plainly they’d never driven one.

Then on to the real thing! It had the potential to be one of the most interesting elections in years, with the televised debates creating a swell of support for the Lib Dems and the other major parties heavily tainted by the expenses scandals, not to mention 13 years of discreditation preceded by 18 years of discreditation. I and most of my friends were voting Lib Dem, and while not expecting them to actually win were hoping for a big increase in their share of the popular vote, and perhaps their number of seats. My young boyfriend had even been out canvassing for them and manning the local polling station.

9pm: we switched to Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night, which promised a ‘night of comedy’ relating to all things electoral. Unfortunately it was primarily presented by the annoying Jimmy Carr, a man who by dint of his very personality can make a good joke unfunny. On the bright side, he was accompanied by the ever-witty David Mitchell, and for some reason Lauren Laverne was there, perhaps as eye candy. A few varyingly funny routines were followed by a politically themed Come Dine With Me, a show that I actually can’t stand in the first place. It was amusing to see Derek Hatton squaring up to Edwina Currie yet again whatever the context though, and Rod Liddle, doing his usual impression of a supremely pissed off bloodhound, was entertainingly rude. Only Brian Paddick, the appropriate Lib Dem  voice of reason, failed to make much of an impression.

But it was 9.55 pm now, and time for the real thing. Over to BBC One we went, expecting it to be the best of the channels covering events. Immediately David Dimbleby popped up, as reassuring as a comfortable old armchair, and a sense of security was generated. Dimbleby would never steer us wrong, and surely in his capable hands the election coverage would be masterful and insightful.

Ever since Bob McKenzie introduced the Swingometer, election pundits have been trying to top this fairly basic way of patronisingly explaining events to the clueless viewer, and the advent of CG has allowed for an increasingly barmy selection of ways to realise the political situation as a largely inappropriate visual metaphor. This has tended to give election coverage an increasingly sci fi feel as years went on, and 2010 didn’t disappoint here. As soon as we saw that Dimbleby and co seemed to be wandering around the Operations Centre of Deep Space Nine, it was clear that this was going to be Star Trek: The Political Coverage.

And so it proved. For the first few minutes, sub-Next Generation music played continuously as Dimbleby introduced us to the crew. We met the Away Teams, who would be dedicatedly stalking the party leaders all night. Andrew Marr was assigned to David Cameron, while John Simpson had beamed to a location near Gordon Brown, and Kirsty Wark was to be genetically handcuffed to Nick Clegg. In the Holodeck was Jeremy Vine, ready to generate computer images to explain everything. Standing ready to scientifically analyse the incoming results was Lt Cmdr Emily Maitlis, who had been equipped with a giant touch screen iPad to illustrate her points. This device, which made intrusive noises reminiscent of a Tivo whenever touched, was quickly dubbed the ‘iPlinth’ in our house, though variants such as ‘iBelisk’ cropped up on occasion.

In a ‘historic first’ Dimbleby then projected several giant phalluses onto the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. These were to represent how near to the ‘majority line’ each party got as the night progressed. We settled in, beer and nibbles easily to hand, as it all began.

At 10pm on the dot, exit poll results popped up on screen. All looked immediately grim (including us). A Hung Parliament? With the Tories in the lead, and the Lib Dems actually losing seats? Surely not. Notes of caution were immediately struck. “The real poll has yet to be revealed”. Sadly, the exit poll would turn out to be all too accurate.

Meanwhile, we cut to Andrew Neil, who, in a break from the Star Trek theme, was inexplicably hosting a showbiz party on a boat in the Thames, rather like the Sex Pistols famously did. Unfortunately for us, no police stormtroopers were on hand to break this party up, and we had to endure Neil soliciting the expert political opinions of the likes of Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins. All the celebs seemed somewhat baffled as to what they were actually doing there, and Brucie even went into his “nice to see you, to see you… nice” routine as a kind of default fallback. Copious amounts of alcohol seemed to be on hand, so that by the time Neil sought the astute political analysis of Bill Wyman, the erstwhile Rolling Stone seemed incapable of speech.

We’d cut back to Neil at various times throughout the night, but back at Deep Space Nine, the real analysis was happening as results started to come in. Houghton and Sunderland East, eager to retain their record as first to declare, had enlisted teams of toned teenage athletes to pass the ballot boxes in a relay, which went down well in our house. The first few results were unsurprising; Labour, Labour, Labour. Safe Labour seats always get results in quickly because of their urban nature, and we had to explain to our election newbie that this wasn’t the encouraging sign for Labour it might have seemed.

In the mezzanine, Chief of Security Jeremy Paxman was already on the attack. First to be grilled was the ever slimy Peter Mandelson. Paxman tried bravely, but trying to pin Mandelson down was like trying to get a chokehold on liquid shapeshifter Odo. He had better luck with Lib Dem Ed Davey, who was asked the supremely awkward question, “would you be prepared to get into bed with Peter Mandelson?”

In the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was striding over a giant map of Britain while summoning a huge vertical chart of each party’s ‘target constituencies’, complete with floating percentage indicators. It was already like being in a low rent version of Avatar, but Vine would get more bizarre as the night wore on.

Back in Operations, the ever reliable Nick Robinson was on hand for any required punditry. Given the already evident Star Trek motif, Nick was inescapably reminiscent of the Emergency Medical Hologram from Voyager: “Please state the nature of the political emergency.” There were signs early on that Nick’s excitement was interfering with his appropriateness gauges, as he began to talk of ‘”hot deals with the Ulster Unionists”.

We also saw signs of the other big story of the night beginning to emerge. It looked as though many potential voters hadn’t actually been able to get into polling stations. Some, particularly students, seemed to have been specifically excluded. Footage was shown of a bedraggled trail of voters trying in vain to vote in Nick Clegg’s constituency. “That’s the queue for a nightclub, surely?” exclaimed young James in our living room.

Back on Andrew Neil’s party boat, the political insight of Mariella Frostrup was being tapped. Mariella was worried; her concern was that “thoughts could be put into Gordon Brown’s hands”. Fortunately, a stunned looking Ian Hislop was also on hand, to ask an actually pertinent question: why, he wondered, were there no percentage breakdowns for the exit polls. Neil, apparently unprepared for a genuinely relevant question, was nonplussed. “Percentages won’t help you”, he snapped, and immediately buggered off, taking the camera with him.

The politicians fall like dominos! Back in the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was explaining the effect of the expenses scandal with the metaphor of a giant CG domino chain in which every domino bore the face of a naughty politician. A tap of his finger and the virtual naughties fell in a nice pattern, littering the floor of Jeremy’s clean white void.

A quick glance at Twitter revealed that, apparently, no one was watching the ITV coverage. “Alastair Stewart could have just gone to bed” opined one Tweeter. Given the results we were now seeing, he actually would have been better off going to the pub.

It was indeed looking bad; looking, in fact, exactly as the exit polls had indicated. But there was still time for more pontificating. “George Osborne puts the ‘Shadow’ into ‘Shadow Chancellor’” commented one of us as the hapless Tory gloated all over the screen. Meanwhile, election expert Prof Peter Hennessy had been dragged out from a handy cupboard to explain hung Parliaments: “The Queen is only activated under certain circumstances”. This produced the immediate image of the monarch as Terminator like cyborg, waiting patiently in a lab until the ‘hung parliament’ switch was pressed.

Exciting results were coming in. Gordon Brown, predictably enough, won his Kirkcaldy seat, but all were more focussed on the weirdo candidate immediately behind him. Representing ‘Land is Power’, whatever that was, his bald, pallid, sunglass clad visage was inescapably reminiscent of one of the Agents from The Matrix, and his arm was fixed in an inexplicable Black Power salute as the results were read out. Meanwhile, David Cameron was opposed by no less a personage than Jesus Christ, at least according to his outfit and beard. It was a sad indicator of how the night would go that not even the Son of Man could defeat Cameron. Book of Revelations, anyone?

We all flagged as this wore on, hour after hour, and the exit polls more clearly became unpalatable reality. After a couple of hours doze at about 6am, it became clear that a Hung Parliament was indeed the result, and the TV coverage would run for at least another day. Dimbleby took a couple of hours off, but Paxman and Robinson continued unstoppably. Even Andrew Neil was continuing to irritate, having abandoned his drunken celebrity filled party boat for a scenic pagoda on Parliament Square.

Not even we could continue watching election coverage indefinitely, and at about 3pm we gave up and went to the pub. But not before all the party leaders  had shown up to make hotly anticipated statements. Predictably, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were seeking the support of the Lib Dems to make a workable government. Nick Clegg, to the irritation of many Lib Dem voters (myself included) stuck to his pre election guns of offering to cooperate with whoever had the most seats. It’s fair to say that a large proportion of Lib Dem voters find the Tory party and its policies hugely unpalatable, and despite his integrity I think Clegg risks losing a lot of his core support if he helps David Cameron out in any way at all. Sure it’s a compromise that might help some of their policies into reality, but  in my view, the price of also realising Tory policies is too high to pay.

But to return to the coverage, and we did from time to time, the result had rather tainted the TV experience (the most important aspect, surely?). An election without a clear result is like a sex act without a climax; it all seems to be building to something great that never happens. So we’re stuck with Dimbleby and co for days yet, probably, and an uncertain governmental future. In some ways, it’s interesting times politically, with no clear resolution in sight and little constitutional precedent. It’s also clear that some form of electoral reform is vital to avoid this result in future. The only question is, will we get reform before we get another General Election?

What the people who read the papers say

I’m a big fan of overhyped, ill-informed media circuses – they can be so entertaining. And it was with a rosy glow of nostalgia that I followed the recent shrieking newspaper hysteria over ‘legal high’ mephedrone. Nostalgia because it almost looks like they just dug up some old articles on Ecstasy from the early 90s and changed some of the words.

Like Ecstasy, mephedrone has apparently become a staple of the club scene, and, like Ecstasy, it appears to have caused some high-profile casualties that the ravening press have seized on as mascots in their latest cause celebre. It’s hard to forget the tabloid hysteria surrounding the Ecstasy related death of Leah Betts in 1995; perhaps easier for many people to forget that she didn’t die as a result of taking the drug, but by drinking so much water that her brain swelled up inside her skull. Never ones to learn a lesson about responsible journalism, the press have leaped on, particularly, the recent deaths of two young men in Scunthorpe to bolster a crusade against mephedrone.

Without wanting to cheapen or denigrate the grief of these men’s families, it should be pointed out that every article on this story (including the usually responsible BBC) has ignored the fact that the men in question had also consumed large quantities of alcohol and methadone. The problem was compounded by the fact that ‘methadone’ sounds so similar to ‘mephedrone’ that a number of readers who did notice this seemed unaware of the difference.

I’ve taken to reading online forums of various papers when I’ve a quiet moment at work, and what was surprising – and even encouraging – was that most people chiming in on the debate thought not only that banning mephedrone was a bad idea, but that banning any drug was a bad idea. Perhaps people genuinely are starting to think that, pragmatically, drug prohibition is an expensive, counter-productive waste of time. If that’s the case, for once the tabloids may have to change their tune. But will they? It’s a chicken and egg situation: do the papers form people’s opinions or reflect them once they’ve formed them?

Obviously, it was no surprise to find that leading the charge against what they insist on referring to as “meow meow” is that bastion of common sense, the Sun. Their insistence on calling the drug something which apparently no user ever would is in itself a clue to how ill-informed the paper seems. “Meow meow” has made many people recall Chris Morris’ classic Drugs episode of Brasseye, which now looks prophetic in its depiction of Morris asking random dealers for ‘Clarky Cat’ and ‘Yellow Bentines’. The Sun have produced such calm, clear-headed pieces as ‘Legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off’ which comes as not much of a surprise, but I couldn’t help smirking at the usually earnest Times giving the world ‘Meow meow Sank its Claws Into My Mind’ . The ever reliable Charlie Brooker has pipped me to the post in a much wittier article about the hysteria in his Guardian column so I’ll content myself by stating my view on this ‘problem’.

Mephedrone almost certainly arose as an alternative to other, probably safer drugs which are criminalised. Ban it, as politicians seem intent on doing without thought, and another chemical compound will be synthesised to do the same job. I’ve done my fair share of drug experimentation, but I have no real experience of what the stuff is or what it does, so (unlike many journalists) I wouldn’t presume to speak from a position of knowledge. But as a relatively new substance, legal or not, it’s difficult to know what the risks of taking it are, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs should certainly be doing a study. Unfortunately, as the sacking of its former director shows, they’re not going be too keen to produce a study which contradicts the politicians and the press’ preconceived ideas concerning this substance.

The bottom line is this: drug prohibition does not work. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, there is a demand for ‘drugs’, and has been for thousands of years. And where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Make something illegal, and the people who will provide that supply are the criminals. America’s dalliance with banning alcohol in the 20s is the textbook example, and yet people still fail to learn from it. The relatively benign cannabis is seen as a ‘gateway’ drug – this might be true, but only because you have to buy it from the same shifty dealer who also sells crack and meth. Imagine if you could buy it from your local newsagent, like that government approved narcotic, tobacco.

So again from a pragmatic viewpoint, the only way to properly control drugs is to legalise them. All of them. Educate people about them, regulate their sale, and above all, tax them. The benefits are obvious, once you get off your moral high horse. People will get the drugs whether they’re legal or not – if they’re legal, the quality is guaranteed, you save billions in ineffective anti-drug enforcement and gain billions in taxation. With the added benefit that organised crime would be crippled overnight. The anti-drugs campaigners in this country and the US love to bang on about how drug sales fund terrorism – given the amount of poppies grown in Afghanistan, they’re probably right. So, want to win your ‘War on Terror’ overnight? Take control of their funding by selling the product yourself.

There are any number of other arguments in favour of legalisation, but in the interests of even handedness, I tried to come up with some logical objections, not produced by the knee jerk moralising that you might see in the Daily Mail. There are a couple of things that count against overall legalisation. Firstly, it might give people the idea that the drugs are now, somehow, ‘safe’. This is the real problem with mephedrone – its legal status seems to convince people that a relatively untried substance won’t cause the sort of damage as the illegal ones. But this is the point where education could step in. After all, we all know how bad for us tobacco is. If you somehow missed that at school, the stark ‘Smoking Kills’ notices on the packets should clue you in. If a Health warning’s good enough for Marlboro, why not for crystal meth?

Second, it will make actually getting the drugs easier. This may sound like I’m switching position, but actually the illegality of most drugs does tend to make it difficult to get hold of them. Buying from the chemist is considerably easier than locating a dealer, gaining his trust, and running the gauntlet of potential prosecution to actually purchase something which is probably cut with baby powder anyway. Even so, by removing the rebellious glamour of a drug’s illegality, you’re probably removing a lot of its temptation in the first place. Want to stick it to ‘The Man’? If he’s the one selling the stuff, you’re not going to look like any kind of anarchist buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that excessive drug use is a good thing. But you could say the same thing about excessive alcohol abuse, and nobody’s calling for booze to be banned. It’s a sad thing that people feel the need to fill some perceived void in their lives by altering their minds with any substance, be it LSD or Guinness. But, again pragmatically, if people are going to do it anyway, let’s at least try and make it as safe as such an activity can be.

Sadly, while the people posting to the online debates understand the hypocrisy of legally selling the far more dangerous tobacco and alcohol, there’s still not enough people vocal about this to give any politician the courage to even mention it. Even if they did, it would only work if it were a worldwide policy, and the US are even more unlikely to put away their emotions and think logically about it. But one thing’s for sure – take away “meow meow” and something else will leap up to take its place. Perhaps we could call it “Shatner’s bassoon”…