2nd May 2019
The chattering classes just love to compare the low turnouts at local and general elections, with the fact that people actually choose to pay money to vote for reality TV contestants. So it is surprising that the Television executives took so long to produce The Election.
It was doubly surprising that it was commercial ITV that gazumped the BBC in what should have been an open-goal commission for our public service broadcaster, and triply surprising that ITV, after being spectacularly dumped by Simon Cowell at the end of 2017, should have chosen to replace their flagship musical talent show with political programming.
We should be glad that they did so, because The Election has proved to be one of the best things on TV on this political cycle, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ll still be talking about the show a decade from now… if it isn’t still on the air, a dozen series older.
For those of you who have been living on Mars for the past year (or maybe, watching Mr Cowell on the Sky X-Factor Channel), The Election was a reality TV series centred around the local politics of Kingston-upon-Hull City Council (chosen, say ITV bosses, because it has consistently low turn-out in local government elections). Although the show was launched on ITV2 to risible ratings, it nevertheless transferred to an ITV1 late prime time slot and pulled in a respectable weekly average of 1.2 million viewers. Hardly a rival to Tess Daly and the glitterballs over on BBC1, but enough to attract some advertisers and to make money on a relatively low budget.
But more importantly, the show undoubtedly beat the other metric for success that ITV had explicitly set itself when the show was launched— increasing voter turnout in Hull. Voter turnout was 73.1% (122,322 voters), an incredible increase of 45.4% on the previous election.
How to explain this popularity, both as entertainment and as a means to increase voter turnout? I think it is accepted that there are several factors.
When The Election was transferred to ITV1, it was a brave but inspired choice to put it on after Coronation Street. The slot after the UK’s longest long-running soap is highly coveted, as many viewers simply continue watching the channel and are exposed to whatever follows. Visually and geographically, Manchester is not a huge contrast from the streets of Hull (although the accents are different) and whenever I saw the two programmes back to back I always felt they were different but complimentary. The problems dealt with by the local councillors in The Election were mostly less melodramatic than those faced by the denizens of Coronation Street, but on a couple of memorable occasions, The Election actually trumped the soap for sheer drama. Granada maintain that no story-lines in the soap were written or modified to mirror The Election, even going so far as to point out that the devastating fire in Coronation Street was filmed well before a real-life fire was captured by The Election second unit crew, even though that footage made it to our screens first. This incident led some to say that the producers were just lucky in the mix of farce, squalor, pettiness and genuine honour that the residents and councillors of Hull exhibited during the series… But isn’t it more likely that, if you spend long enough in any area, these incidents and slices-of-life will materialise?
The length of the series was also a key factor in The Election‘s success. Committing to the community for over a year allowed the film-makers time to tell complex stories that 30 minute documentaries, or even six-part dramas, cannot adequately do justice. Has there ever been a programme that has shown the work of local councillors and their electoral opponents in such excrutiating detail? Our understanding of the issues faces, and (this is crucial) the reasons for inaction only come with cumulative watching. In any other series, the meetings that the councillors have with local officials, competing interest groups, and local businesses, would have been cut – and with it, our understanding of the complexity of local government. As many social media users have pointed out, the most apt comparison is not with other documentary series such as 24 Hours in A&E, Benefits Street or Can’t Pay, We’ll Take It Away but HBO’s The Wire.
Plenty of people have criticised The Election for distorting the democratic process. The series gave equal time to incumbent councillors and their challengers and so was ‘fair’ in that sense. But the very fact of the cameras must have changed the way everyone behaved, and perhaps created a more conciliatory politics than the people of Kingston-upon-Hull (or indeed, everywhere else) usually enjoy. A sort of televisual Hiesenberg Effect was in operation, where the observers profiundly change what is being observed.
Well, yes. But really, what is wrong with that? Broadcasters are a part of our democracy. The light of television exposure has been shone onto a particular corner of the North East, and the polity has been renewed a little. I don’t think it matters that other boroughs could have done with a similar democratic catalyst: that’s what season 2 is for! Maybe next year the producers could get to work on a more rural area, or a seaside town? In the meantime, one hopes that The Election inspires more people to get involved in local politics, just as it inspired more people to vote on election day.