Last night's TV ding dong between David Cameron and Ed Miliband was the first of four in the run up to May's General Election. It'll be interesting to see if the debate will be able to sustain the utterance of this much nothingness for three more rounds.
Ahead of the event Cameron had decided against participating in any direct debate between himself and the leader of the opposition, for fear of Ed Miliband appearing like a Prime Minister in waiting – or at least that was the claim, possibly put about by Labour PR SPADs. That meant that rather the kind of duel we saw ahead of the 2010 General Election, the catalyst for "Cleggmania" and a thousand Guardian love letters, what we got instead was the bizarre spectacle of both men being individually quizzed by Jeremy Paxman before separately taking questions from a live studio audience alongside Sky's Kay Burley. What was billed as a "battle" was in fact a highly choreographed, elaborate effort to avoid anything of the remotest interest actually taking place. For the most part, it worked.
While the evening was far from memorable, there were several moments which told the viewer something about not only both men, but the shrivelled, shallow state of our national politics and how it sits alongside a mainstream media which acts more as a mirror for the privilege of our alleged representatives than an inquisitor holding them to account.
That was most evident when the ever-puzzled Paxman pointed out to Ed Miliband that his predictions on unemployment, wages and inflation had proved, in the final analysis, incorrect. While Paxman's Waitrose rottweiler brand of journalism has led to him being lauded as one of the outstanding political journalists of his generation, his tacit claim of wages having gone up under this government – when they have in fact declined by as much as 8 percent – shows how out of touch and just plain wrong his work can be, something that is rarely recognised.
Nevertheless, Paxman said this nonsense with an assured authority. It is that authority, that unyielding sense of certainty, which seems to be the basis of so much in British politics. Where ignorance is mutual, confidence is king, and on issues which much of the electorate may be unaware or ill-informed the quizzical, furrowed Paxman is broadcast as a nation's sage.
There were fleeting moments that tied the personal stories of both men to their "pragmatic" (read: opportunistic) politics. One such instance was when Paxman asked the Prime Minister – a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II, who got a phone call of endorsement from Buckingham Palace when he was going for an interview at Tory HQ – whether he would be able to live on a zero-hours contract. After some initial groans, he offered a rather predictable reply, "Some people choose to live on a zero-hours contract." Just like how almost one million people choose to go to food banks, 700,000 can choose between any number of zero-hours jobs with flatlining wages. Choice and meritocracy, British style.
That the Prime Minister's answer to such a pertinent question was the same as it would have been five years ago shows that on low pay and falling living standards, his party has no answers beyond an almost religious faith in the market sorting itself out.
While hardly the polar opposite that the right-wing press depict him as, Ed Miliband does have some vaguely interesting things to say about energy bills, the minimum wage and in-work poverty. Given all that, why did Paxman chose to focus on his brother instead, a political question that was last interesting in 2010? "They see you as a North London geek" the former BBC Newsnight anchor said as he sunk into his chair, never more at ease with the utter predictability of what passes for British politics, "who cares, who does?" replied the Labour leader, which seemed a fair question.
There is a good chance that the result of May's General Election will throw up an unlikely and unstable government. The political centre of British politics is crumbling as some older Tory, and to a lesser extent Labour, voters look to UKIP. Meanwhile the Greens are disproportionately popular among the young, a cohort of potential voters who have seen their wages fall the most, and who tend to see Ed Miliband as representing the very least the Labour Party should be offering in terms of progressive policies. Events in Scotland since the late 1990s have shown that with ideas, will and determination, anything is possible. The SNP currently have six MPs. This election, they look set to win 43 of Scotland's 59 seats. The political changes seen north of the border – where the Conservative Party currently hold one seat – will likely move south over the following years.
To behold the bland, bizarre politics on offer from messrs Cameron and Miliband – and the agonisingly inert questions of Paxman – was almost to observe a foreign country. The defining issues of the next several decades: climate change, the end of American Empire and with it a measure of global stability, and the seeming failure of capitalism to elevate living standards anywhere in the Global North since 2008 are all, in their own ways, fascinating and merit our full attention.
What was on show last night was not politics, but a pantomime which could not be less interested in the "little" realities of everyday life – like your wages or zero hours contract – nor the big picture thinking required to overcome the defining challenges of our generation. At least on the 2nd of April, the agreed date for the seven-party debate on ITV, the grey of Cameron and Miliband will be broken up Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon trying to get a look in. The residue of two-party politics that stuck itself to our TV screens last night will soon been wiped away by the excitement of multiple politicians, some of whom might have some energy, or say something worthwhile. Let's count ourselves lucky, because a repeat of last night would be too much nothingness to bear.