Pick people that are easy for the public to hate and make them live with people that are impossible to hate. This is a new format for documentaries currently doing the rounds, examples of which include: Blood, Sweat and Takeaways, which followed a group of solipsistic, mollycoddled twenty somethings, leaving their throw away, carefree existence to experience the real cost for those who make their bargain buckets a bargain; Famous, Rich and Homeless, went a step further by throwing various celebrities out on the streets to live with the homeless, shattering their preconceptions that all homeless people are lazy, work shy, freeloaders blocking the door to M&S; and 7 Days on the Breadline, forced the company of several celebrities on a few poor families (in both senses) in Leeds, so that they could learn that some people in this country don’t have enough money. Gasp!
Tower Block of Commons is the latest take on the theme, which sees four (that soon became three) politicians move in with families in dilapidated, poverty stricken council estates across Britain. They are: Austin Mitchell (the fat, old, loud one), Mark Oaten (the one who had the rent-boys), Iain Duncan Smith (the one who quit after a day following his wife’s cancer diagnosis), Tim Loughton (the one who looks like Richard Nixon might have if he wore glasses).
What becomes abundantly obvious early on – as with any of these shows – is the dichotomy between what the politicians hope they will achieve and what the producers know they will achieve. It is a sad irony that the politicians who opted to take part in this show probably did so due to a staunch belief that they were a bit more streetwise than their peers – after all, most middle class people would break out in a cold sweat if a tradesman asked them the time – and by broadcasting themselves side-by-side with the poorest in society they would improve their standing among the electorate, their colleagues in Whitehall and perhaps even change the zeitgeist of negative feeling towards MPs in general. This optimism serves to highlight their naivety in two primary ways.
First and foremost is the delusion that going to live on a council estate with those less fortunate is going to prove that you are fundamentally the same as them and, as such, they will respect you for it. This conviction is rooted in the politicians’ misguided belief that the poorest people in society will be equally interested in politics and as responsive to their policies as the richest. They won’t. The richest tend to get what they want and the poorest tend to get what’s left. The people they are staying with will more than likely have lived a life where politics has had little or no impact on their day to day activities, aside from the constant and belligerent anti-politician propaganda that they read in the tabloids. This engenders a deep seated mistrust in politicians, which is unlikely to be erased over a cup of tea, or a rational debate – such as Tim Loughton attempted with a group of youths outside a shop – because, since when did The Sun give a rational balanced point of view? In Parliament, arguing that MPs should be held accountable for fraudulent expenses claims is a sure to be an argument clincher. On a council estate, “What the fuck are you gunna do about it?” is a winning retort.
The second big mistake – and it’s more stupid than the first – lies in trusting that the programme’s producers have set the show up with the politicians in mind, as a vehicle for their political resurrection. This is an obvious blunder. Television portrays things as it feels fit, and in most cases, this is in the simplest and most shocking way. Tower Block of Commons could have been used as a vehicle to show politicians in a better light, connect them with the electorate and hopefully reinvigorate a lost generation of voters – which, judging by the enthusiastic opening monologues, was what the MPs had hoped for. But why put the effort in to do that when you can just make a 75 year old back bencher dress in a gaudy tracksuit and mock his gaucherie when confronted by the horrors of heroin addiction?
TV in this form is reductive. It doesn’t try to find meaning or solutions, it aims to belittle and humiliate. It follows the current capricious wave of public feeling and in this instance that means creating a show with the express intention of making politicians fail and look foolish.
Sadly though the programme is a double bluff. The politicians are the easy butt of the joke, but ultimately it is the poor families they stay with that suffer the most humiliation; the humiliation of having to live a life limited by poverty, poor health care, lack of education and job prospects. At a time when the focus is on filling the void between rich and poor we aren’t half bad at digging.
As David Cameron says, staring intensely from his poster, “We can’t go on like this.” . . . But what the fuck is he gunna do about it?