The format of the leaders' debate was pure gameshow, though more in the style of The Weakest Link than Blind Date. Julie Etchingham seemed to consciously model her severe style on Anne Robinson, which was undoubtedly a better choice than attempting to channel Cilla Black (the collision of politicians and human interest is usually toe-curling). This made the interruption of reality - the heckler - all the more amusing, as if the programme was about to descend into something more akin to The Jeremy Kyle Show, with Nick Clegg condemning David Cameron as a love rat and Nigel Farage stinking the place out. Though the post-match pundits mischievously claimed that Nicola Sturgeon came out on top (she said nothing new and didn't land a punch, but then she didn't have to), I suspect the lasting memory will be Leanne Wood's contempt for the UKIP leader.
There were two dynamics in play. First, the competition to be Prime Minister: a straight choice between Cameron and Miliband. The format of the debate prevented any real interrogation of policy, which was presumably the Tories' cunning plan, but given the small differences on offer (how harsh would you like your austerity?), and the implicit caveat that coalition means that all promises are contingent (thanks, Nick Clegg), it was always going to be about projecting personal "credibility". Where once this might have been a mixture of essentially cultural and social virtues, such as gravitas or sincerity, it now means performative governance: a combination of financialisation (policy framed as a choice of investment options) and managerialism (problems reduced to targets and metrics) topped with superficial personality (empathy and kitchen etiquette).
The second dynamic was the marketplace for beliefs. The fragmentation of politics is held to be due to low popular esteem (which is hardly novel) and the alienation of traditional supporters, however an equally plausible explanation is that it marks the continuing evolution of politics as a consumption preference and thus reflects a wider tendency towards the particular and the niche. This is not just the extension of market techniques to the social realm, which came in with mass media (national opinion-polling is a century old), but the assumption that political choice is now a matter of personal rather than social identification - i.e. what best expresses me rather than what would be best for society. This can be seen not just in the narcissistic tendency of the Greens ("vote for what you believe in") and UKIP ("we're not like the rest"), but in the number of English voters attracted to a party they cannot vote for, the SNP.
The great achievement of neoliberalism has been to occlude class by a relentless focus on homo oeconomicus, the representative utility-maximiser, and by the acceptance of abstract "market forces" that aren't situated in any social or historical reality. The only concessions to solidarity are bromides such as "hard-working people" and the patronisation of "the poorest in society" as objects of pity. It was interesting that the only time ethics came to the fore in the debate (as opposed to utilitarian calculations such as "investing in our kids") was in the discussion of foreigners, first in the context of foreign aid and then in the context of supposed benefit tourism. It appears that Margaret Thatcher's gloss - "'No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well" - has yet to convince.
But this popular appetite for the ethical also shows the gulf that exists between the propaganda of the media and the reality of social relations. The Telegraph regretted that even Cameron "failed to make the case for business, for fear of upsetting the voters", which reveals its binary view of a world divided between the beleaguered minority of "wealth creators" and the profligate majority demanding more tax for its "precious NHS" (or "class war vs the free market", in the words of the realiably dichotomous Janet Daley). Despite the traditional early appearance of a letter from business leaders extolling ("in a personal capacity") the necessity of Conservative government, the reality is that electors tend to ignore the opinion of their self-appointed betters unless there is a naked threat that carries really menace, such as the banks that promised to leave Scotland in the event of independence. This is why the individual threat to quit Britain if Labour wins (a job once left to publicity-starved has-beens, but now the territory of professional trolls) is always so ill-judged.
Nigel Farage's insistence that the NHS should put "our own people first" appeals to the same sense of solidarity that underpins the pitch of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and even the Greens, but when he extends this to refusing treatment to HIV patients, he loses all sympathy because their primary characteristic is not their foreignness but their misfortune. For all the tabloid frenzy directed at "benefit cheats", the mundane truth is that most people lack the energy for permanent hatred. We can manage lazy xenophobia or low-level bigotry, but find rigorous racism (or "class war") too much of an effort. The right have never quite understood charity, routinely confusing exhibitionism with selflessness, just as they have never quite managed the right tone of voice when talking about the NHS (Cameron indulged in his usual shroud-waving, a manoeuvre now subject to the law of diminishing returns). The political class over-estimates both the cruelty and sentimentality of the people, largely because they are polluted by the distorting prism of the media.
Despite the grumbles of political journalists, trapped in the conventions of their own making, the debate was revealing of the gap between the Westminster bubble and common concerns. It isn't that the UK electorate are not bothered about wealth creation, just that they have a wider, more generous interpretation of what constitutes wealth. The debate also suggested that the modern contempt for politics emanates more from the establishment itself than it does from the people. After all, the limited number of debates and straitjacketed form were dictated by Number 10, while the caution and defensiveness of the answers from Miliband, Cameron and Clegg were prompted by spin doctors and election strategists, not by the questioners. That points to the fundamental pessimism of neoliberalism, an ideology that pays lip service to the post-enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of man, but which (as a soft totalitarianism) assumes that man is an inveterate back-slider, hence the need for constant vigilance, striving and assessment.
The neoliberal erosion of democracy is real and deliberate, but it would be overly-pessimistic to assume that this is inexorable. Without getting too dialectical about it, the process creates it own contradictions. The "seven dwarves" form of the leaders' debate is both a consequence of and a response to neoliberal hegemony and its insistence that markets are superior to deliberation. Coalition or minority government can lead to bland centrism, but it can also shift the political locus off-centre (it's worth remembering that not only is the Greek government a coalition, but so is Syriza as a party). The idea of a UK "popular front" after May the 7th - even if informal - is not altogether far-fetched, and might even be welcomed by some in the Labour party as a way of drawing a definitive line under Blairism, but this would not presage a departure from neoliberalism, merely a generational makeover in the interests of "compassion", "fairness" and "opportunity for all". A bit more Cilla Black, chuck.