Stop the press — a new political podcast is in town. Electoral Dysfunction, the new venture by Sky News’s Beth Rigby, Scottish Conservative Ruth Davidson and Labour’s Jess Phillips, promises “three political powerhouses” to “unravel the spin” in a bumper year of elections. If you’re having your Brenda from Bristol moment, you’re not alone.
Launching a podcast has now become something of a compulsory pastime for many politicians and spin doctors. It doesn’t matter how embarrassing your political missteps, or how immoral your previous decisions, the podcast studio is where failed careers come to be rehabilitated.
Consider The Rest is Politics, perhaps the most successful show of its type, where Labour attack dog Alastair Campbell and former Conservative Rory Stewart promise to “lift the lid on the secrets of Westminster”. Like the Electoral Dysfunction gals, Stewart and Campbell believe that the thing people really hate about political discourse is all the nasty disagreement.
The podcast claims to bring back “the lost art of disagreeing agreeably”, which, for anyone who has had the pleasure of being on a TV sofa with Campbell, is a laughable suggestion. By boiling everything down to a sort of centrist conformity — from discussions about immigration or Brexit to gender ideology, environmentalism or the war in the Middle East — the overriding message is that what people really want is sensible, intellectual, after-dinner-style political analysis.
Electoral Dysfunction’s cosy collaboration across party lines is nothing new. There’s Ed Balls and George Osborne’s Political Currency, Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith’s For The Many and — most bizarrely — professional feminist Deborah Frances-White and phone-flinging John Bercow’s podcast Absolute Power.
While many of these shows offer up a level of insider gossip into the world of Westminster — popular background music for a middle-class Sunday morning — what they really reveal is how easy it really is to “reach across” party lines. The gap between the Conservatives and Labour is no longer wide enough to fit a cigarette paper. While most people think the “never kissed a Tory”-style political division is a bit silly, the chumminess of our political elite on display in the podcasting world is enough to make one reach for the sick bucket.
In her explanation for launching the podcast, Rigby says that, despite this being the “most seismic UK election in a generation”, voters simply “aren’t feeling it”, and that people tell her that “politics isn’t working.” As Davidson says, the cure for such political apathy isn’t better politics, or bigger ideas, but simply to explain a little better to the voting public exactly what politicians get up to. “This whole podcast is about showing what goes on behind the scenes, explaining how decisions get made,” Davidson told Sky. “It’s a three-woman campaign for less BS in SW1.” The problem with politics isn’t them, you see, it’s us — the listeners who simply just don’t get how it all works.
The expansion of parliamentary podcasting is telling — particularly when many politicians now refuse to take part in hustings or face-to-face surgeries. The padded rooms of a studio are far more inviting than a draughty town hall, and the pesky members of the public can only reply to you in the comments. Political speeches are made not for the court of public opinion, but for clipability on social media.
The rise of political podcasting is not an entry point into politics for the dispossessed, but instead an expression of how insular and introspective politics has become. These shows aren’t about politics at all: they’re about politicians. “It’s a total sausage-fest out there,” Davidson says, suggesting that Electoral Dysfunction (get it) offers “something different”. Give me strength.