On Thursday 7th May, Britain goes to the polls, in what is set to be the most exciting, unpredictable General Election in a generation. Channel 4 will be covering events in its own, inimitable style with the Alternative Election Night.
The night will be hosted by Jeremy Paxman and comedian David Mitchell. Here Mitchell speaks about plans for the evening, the joy of political manifestos, and much more.
The election looks like it’s going to be the most unpredictable in decades. Are you excited about that?
I am excited about that, but at the same time I’m aware that it’s come at a time when the public seems to care less about the result, and about the actions of their politicians, than I can remember at any point in my life. So I think it’s odd that the closeness of the election comes at the same time as the whole of British politics seeming to matter less than ever.
How will Channel 4 mark this auspicious occasion?
The point of the Channel 4 coverage is not just to report on the process, but to question it. A lot of people feel that our democratic institutions are not really reflecting the needs and desires of the people very effectively, and at every stage we’ll be talking about that, and asking whether we do things is still the right way of doing things. For example, we have a voting system that no-one would describe as particularly fair, but its advantage was supposed to be that it delivered strong government. But it’s not delivering strong and decisive election results anymore, so how on earth can we continue to justify a system where the outcome is so unrepresentative of the way that the electorate has cast its votes?
When you have a lower turnout, and an electoral system that isn’t delivering a clear result, and isn’t fair, then surely something needs to be done. You’ve also got very famous and charismatic people like Russell Brand questioning the need to take part in the democratic process at all. I can’t really understand how not voting could possibly be a more constructive contribution to changing the country than voting. But nevertheless, the fact that he said it so publicly, and his remarks are listened to by so many, is in itself alarming, and a sign that the system is beginning to fail us.
So how will Channel 4 be covering these issues? What are the weapons in the armoury?
Well, I think the main weapon in the armoury is to take the piss. I think the failings in our political system are potentially quite funny. And I think comedy is a good technique with which to illustrate the failings of politicians and the system in which they operate. Hopefully it’s an appropriate response, and a non-tedious one.
You’re going to be working with Jeremy Paxman. Is that a daunting prospect?
Well, I’ve met him now, and he’s been extremely nice and funny and fun and supportive, so I’m very excited by it. But I was certainly daunted before I met him. But then he’s an incredibly powerful voice of authority, and of the authority with which the media questions politicians. It’s brilliant to get the opportunity to work with someone like that, and I think he will lend the programme huge credibility.
What’s your ambition for the night?
I think our ambition for the night is to be the place where viewers go to find out exactly what happens in the election, blow-by-blow, but also to see the ramifications of that entertainingly and illuminatingly discussed. That people come away from it saying “I watched the election on Channel 4, I feel I know what’s going on, and watching the election was a fun experience.”
How will you prepare for the night? What are you doing by way of research?
I’m trying to keep up to date with the campaign, which is actually proving easier than I thought, as the politicians seem to go round and round in circles saying the same things over and over again. I want to have an eye on the key seats that might change hands in a way that would suggest important shifts. But mainly I want to keep my brain alive to the array of issues we need to address, and try and find opportunities to bring them up as and when relevant things happen.
Are you having to work your way through seven manifestos? It must be a lot more work than last time!
I find the fact of manifestos absolutely absurd. They’re not in any way legally binding – we know that parties will abandon manifesto promises at the drop of a hat – and yet they’re written at such length, and so tediously, as to be effectively small print. But the thing about small print on a contract is that it is binding, but you stop people reading it. If you’re not going to bother sticking to your manifesto, you might as well make it punchy and entertaining to read. And shorter.
Some of them are 82 pages long. That’s not the way to get people’s support. When Tesco are trying to get people to shop with them rather than at Sainsbury’s, they don’t make you read an 80 page book about their merits. And I don’t accept that politicians can’t say what they want to do without this convention of publishing mini-telephone directories of tedium.
I’m not going to ask you how you’ll vote, but have you decided how you’ll vote?
I think I’ve decided, but I won’t know for sure that I’ve decided until I actually do that. Not to belittle it, but it’s a bit like in a restaurant when you’ve looked at the menu, and you think you’ve chosen, and then at the last minute you go for the soup.
What has struck you about the campaign so far?
The politicians are busting a gut to get one up on each other, and it doesn’t seem to be having an impact on the public. I think the whole Westminster bubble is now bouncing around the country – all the same journalists following the same politicians as they go through the same motions, but next to a different part of the country rather than in their Westminster offices. I suspect that all of the money, effort and sleepless nights may not be changing anybody’s minds.
What are your own memories of elections when you were younger? Did you used to stay up late into the night watching them?
I definitely stayed up and watched the ’92 and ’97 elections, very late. The ’92 one was interesting because it went against expectations. I was too young to vote then, but I found it quite gripping. The exit polls being overturned by events. And then ’97, we all knew what was going to happen, but it was such a big change to politics as I had known it pretty much my whole life.
I could vaguely remember a Prime Minister with glasses before Margaret Thatcher, but back in 1979 I had no real sense of what Labour and Conservative meant. So it was basically the politics of my whole life that were changing in 1997. I think there were a lot of people in that position. That was very exciting. I have less vivid memories of the 2001 and 2005 elections, to be honest. I kept my eye on them, but I didn’t stay up very late. They were pretty much foregone conclusions, both of them.
There’s a popular view of politicians as cynical, manipulative and out for their own ends. What do you think of that?
I think they are forced into cynical, manipulative and self-interested actions. I don’t think politics, these days, is an enterprise for the fundamentally self-interested. They have a hell of a time, and get neither wealth nor glory. They’re not very well paid, and they get shit hurled at them. I think most politicians have gone into it with relatively laudable motives. I think there are a lot of people who go into it for the right reasons, and very few who go into it entirely for the wrong reasons. But I worry that the state of modern politics puts people off launching political careers.
I think it should be more competitive and more rewarding and rewarded. We used to have a situation where people who had made a success of other careers were drawn by the excitement of politics, a second phase of their professional life. I don’t think that’s happening now. I don’t think the problem with our political system is that the people involved are malevolent, but the realities of it grind them down. They’re forever having to deal with short-term media crises and dips in the polls and all that, so they end up cobbling together eye-catching initiatives that don’t really mean anything.
They’re obsessively trying to re-boot their image, and the media is obsessively criticising their image. I think it would help all of that if they were drawn from a wider range of people. We don’t just want people who were massively into politics as teenagers. In a way, politics has to be more open to people who are less into politics.
On that issue, I read that as a youth you wanted to be either a comedian or Prime Minister. Having achieved one, is it time for phase two of your career?
No. The time in my life when I thought I wanted to be Prime Minister was probably only two or three years later than when I last thought I wanted to be a wizard. It wasn’t a serious career aspiration, more just the megalomania of youth. My adult brain has never wanted to be Prime Minister, or in politics at all. I think when I was growing up in the 80s, politicians seemed really important. They didn’t seem very nice, but they did seem like they mattered.
I’m megalomaniacal enough to be drawn to things that seem like they matter. My image of what it means to be an MP or a cabinet minister was very different in the 80s from what it is now. The whole thing seems much less of a big deal. I think the fact that, as a teenager, I thought I wanted to be Prime Minister, says a lot more about how politics back seemed to be more important when I was growing up compared to how it seems now.
So essentially you’re saying you don’t want to be Prime Minister now because it’s not quite an important enough role for you?
[Laughs] No, that is not what I’m saying. I don’t think I ever wanted to be it, but it was a sort of knee-jerk thing I said I wanted to be, thoughtlessly, when I was 13. But I think fewer 13-year-olds would be thoughtlessly saying that now. Back then, they seemed like big shots. Even Geoffrey Howe.
Did you learn anything from hosting the last Alternative Election Night?
I don’t know. I learned that I enjoyed it, which is one of the reasons I’ve agreed to do it again. I think I learned that one of the fun things about live TV is that it doesn’t go entirely according to plan. That’s not only one of the fun things as a participant, but also one of the fun things as a viewer. Much less television is live now, but something people watching it crave is unplanned things happening. The election is a great planned template in which unplanned things will happen. I think, at its best, it felt like we were having a chat that would be the extension of chats that people were having in their living rooms.
When you’re conducting those chats and interviews, do you find it difficult to maintain an air of impartiality?
I do, yes. And I don’t really try that hard, to be honest. I think what I think, and I don’t think it out of reasons of bias. I’m not paid to think it, that’s just the conclusion I’ve come to. So what is impartial? Is it some arbitrary mean of the most left-wing opinion and the most right-wing opinion? One of the things that’s frustrating about the media is the sort of false opposition that it throws up, the typical example being the MMR vaccine. One crackpot said it might be linked to autism, everyone else said “No it isn’t” but in the media that’s “Okay, we’ve got two sides to the argument.” In that world, impartiality, that would be giving some credence to what turns out to be absolute nonsense.
I think, if you’re going to have a debate on a programme about an issue, it’s important that all sides of the issue are represented, but I’m not willing to go so far as to pretend I think things that I don’t think, or not say something’s nonsense if I think it’s nonsense. That’s just my opinion. And I’m a comedian, not a journalist. Part of what I do is contribute and opine. I’m, not just there to enable “proper” politicians to get their views out in a balanced way.
During the last election night, one of the guests of the programme was a certain Victoria Coren. Did you find that rather distracting at the time?
[Laughs] I did find it distracting at the time, and I was very glad she was there. I was already very much smitten, but we weren’t going out then. So yes, it was distracting. But at the same time there was a lot going on, so I was also distracted by being on live television. But it was very nice that she was there.
Have you lined up any guests for this election night who you might take as your second wife?
[Laughs] None planned. I’m currently very happy with the wife I’ve got, if that doesn’t sound too incurably romantic.
Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night is on Thursday May 7th, from 9pm.