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Tuesday, May 04, 2010 

The desperate hours.

If there has ever been such a thing as a genuinely enlightening, enjoyable and informative election campaign, and that's a very, very big if, then the 2010 general election season has most certainly not been it. The last four weeks, despite all the hype about this being the first social networking election, first internet election or the Mumsnet election, or whatever other hyperbolic nonsense was concocted prior to the beginning about how this time everything would be different, have been staunchly traditionalist, despite the innovations. Ignoring what the eventual outcome will be, at best 2010's campaign is going to be remembered for three things, if that: the leadership debates, the Liberal Democrat surge in the polls, and Gordon Brown calling Gillian Duffy a "bigoted woman" once in the safety of his Jag. Without those three things, this would have been just as dismal and forgettable a campaign as those we suffered in both 2001 and 2005, with the odd exception.

Part of the problem has undoubtedly been that even as the parties and the politicians themselves have arguably been under the most scrutiny they've ever faced, they've responded by endlessly repeating themselves on the same few policy differences, while refusing to face up honestly to the true scale of the problems, chiefly economic, which the country faces. Those only paying the most scant of attention would be justified in believing that the real difference between the Conservatives and Labour was that the Tories will begin cutting this year, but only slightly, while opposing the "jobs tax" or national insurance rise Labour plan to bring in next year. To call this obscurantist would be putting it too delicately, as both policies have been demonised in equal measure: if the Tories only cut waste by £6 billion this year, and that's another big if, it will change next to absolutely nothing. Likewise, Labour's national insurance rise is hardly going to destroy the recovery, and the costs will probably be passed on to the consumer, rather than result in jobs being cut. The almost unmentionable fact is that both parties, especially the Tories if they continue to oppose the NI rise, are going to have put up VAT to at least 20%, a regressive measure which will hit those who can't afford to save far harder than the terrifying "jobs tax" ever will.

As refreshing as the first television debate was, the three set-pieces have only exacerbated the focus on the leaders at the expense of their parties, with what they have decided are the "key" policies following suit. By half-way through the third one, Nick Clegg's distancing strategy was wearisome rather than impressive, Gordon Brown's deliberate confusing of the economy with the government was rage-inducing and David Cameron's constant intoning against the "jobs tax" which is nothing of the sort was becoming as transparent as his forehead threatens to be in years to come. Along with immigration, the only other continuing theme of a lacklustre four weeks, yet one which tabloid newspapers and bores seeking to benefit continue to maintain you can't talk about, admittedly not helped by politicians' continuing refusal to be honest about how we need it, let alone defend or support it as a cause for good, it's a small wonder that turnout looks likely to increase. It certainly can't be down to excitement at the difference on offer, or to inspirational rhetoric or policies; only the uncertainty of the result itself seems to explain it.

Even if you have to accept that the media were always going to focus on the debates to the detriment of everything else, the ultimate blame for this sorry campaign has to be laid at the parties themselves. For politicians that constantly bang on about and obsess themselves with the almost mythical "aspirational", hard-working voter, the poverty of thought and strategy over the last month should have been expected. As both Cameron and Brown went to the umpteenth supermarket or school, achieving absolutely nothing but delivering a few pictures which the newspapers and broadcasters would be able to fleetingly use that night or the next morning, you just might have imagined that someone might have reconsidered how they were attempting to reach voters. While you can apportion blame to both sides, the media on one hand for wanting desperately to catch something approaching a "gaffe", the politicians equally determined to avoid falling into the trap while also maintaining the fiction that they were meeting real people rather than the carefully vetted and stooges, it's the politicos and their advisers that should be breaking out of such confines. You can understand why the Tories have hidden almost everyone other than Cameron himself, especially when the public have yet to warm to the undisputed charms of George Osborne, yet why have Labour had only the incredibly popular Gordon Brown out doing the rounds? Who possibly thought it could be a good idea to let Ed Balls do Question Time last week? Where have any of the Labour women been? Where's Alistair Darling? Where are the Milibands? Are they all off already plotting who's going to be the next leader? Why, when the focus hasn't been on the economy, has it been on the seemingly worst parts of their other policies? Did Labour really think their campaigning on CCTV or making out the Tories to be the burglar's friend would wash? Weren't they ashamed of standing on the same platform as Linda Bowman? Did the Conservatives really think winning the support of Brooke Kinsella for their own authoritarian policies was a massive victory?

Perhaps this was to be expected of Labour. From the moment of the launch of their manifesto, which revealed the absolute dearth of any new ideas, bereft as it was of any compelling reason to vote for the party except to keep the Tories out, the campaign has been little short of a disaster. Gordon Brown clearly wasn't being trusted enough to do any actual campaigning, especially without Sarah being by his side, yet there has been no one else out there even trying to make the case for another term in government. The closest was Peter Mandelson, and now he's stopped being the distillation of the evil of spin in human form the media's lost interest. Everything appears to have been left to an exhausted and ever diminishing activist base, which in the circumstances has as always done its best, but when the leadership of the party is completely failing to articulate why they should be supported how can even the most dedicated and persuasive of local party figures convince the wavering?

Just how abject the Conservative campaign has been is far less easy to understand. Compare the Conservatives now with Labour in 1992 and almost everything is in their favour: the majority of the press behind them, Cameron a fresher leader than Kinnock was, an incredibly unpopular prime minister in Gordon Brown and a far worse recession having just ended than the one ongoing then, yet still they can't be guaranteed even the smallest of majorities come Friday morning. For all the attempts at positioning himself as the foremost agent of change, David Cameron has failed time and again to convince the country as a whole that he is anything more than very slightly preferable to the incumbent. This time round it can't be the organisation itself to blame, however unloved the Tory party remains; Cameron has installed himself as the equivalent of the Dear Leader. If the party fails on Thursday, then it's his failure. This can't just be put down to voter cynicism after Blair, whom Cameron has so modelled himself on, it's something more, especially a failure to convince younger voters of his gravitas and abilities. One thing that it might be is that they simply don't believe in their own policies, and so can't expect anyone else to: why launch a manifesto inviting everyone to join the next government and then say that a hung parliament is anathema? Why base the entire thing around the "big society" and then say almost nothing about it afterwards? It it because they can't explain it easily on the doors or because, as one Tory source put it, it's bollocks? Why argue repeatedly that society is broken, as they did so often, only then to seemingly forget about it and imagine you can instantly move from Broken Britain to helping each other to help themselves in apparently one bound?

One small thing that can be taken from this otherwise mundane campaign is that it hasn't been as dirty as some of its predecessors, at least as far as the parties' attacks on each other have been concerned. Instead the right-wing press especially has stepped into the breach, terrified of the terrible spectre of their chosen messiah not entering Downing Street, thrashing out almost in harmony first at Nick Clegg and then at Gordon Brown. It would be wrong to pretend however that it's just a tabloid disease: check the Observer's attack on Philippa Stroud, which is even more ancient in origin than the Daily Mail's was on Clegg.

As we enter the final, desperate hours, so the despairing reaches new depths. The Mirror pleads on its front page for tactical voting, as do the more hand-wringing of ministers, even while they're decried by others and ridiculed by Nick Clegg, of all people. Labour step up their dreadful scaremongering over tax credits, as if it would be truly unacceptable if those on over £50,000 a year were denied access to them, an indictment of how they've abandoned the poorest to attempt, however unsuccessfully, to bribe the middle. The usual coalition of Guardianistas, led by Polly Toynbee, trying to blackmail readers into voting Labour by amplifying how the poor will suffer under anyone other than the party she herself abandoned in 1983 when there really was a choice on offer which would have made a true difference, ignoring as they do every single illiberal, disastrous, even murderous decision which the government has made since 1997.

It's undeniable that this is the most important election of my lifetime, although considering that only covers a quarter of a century that may not be saying much. There is, if you bother to dig beneath the veneer, a clear choice between the parties, yet their campaigns have been for the most part so execrable and so limited as to dilute this down almost to nothing. Just as politicians have repeated to themselves time and again that we deserved better than we got from the parliament that will be remembered for the expenses scandal, so we deserved a campaign that would have illuminated, inspired and demonstrated the policy differences that would have truly made the case not just for themselves, but also for voting as an act in itself. We instead got the same, tired old phony dividing lines combined with at times an utter contempt for saying anything other than the obvious or expected, which is in turn a contempt for the public as a whole. Whoever emerges on Friday as the victor, the real winner will remain that party and leading politician, rather than the democracy which they so ascribe to.

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"It would be wrong to pretend however that [negative and hysterical media coverage is] just a tabloid disease: check the Observer's attack on Philippa Stroud, which is even more ancient in origin than the Daily Mail's was on Clegg."

A false equivalence; the Observer's article had a factual basis, while the Mail's didn't.

What was telling was the respective parties' responses to the stories: the Tories did all they can to defend Stroud and she "apologised" for something no-one actually accused her of, while the Clegg story was dismissed by the Lib Dems and ridiculed straight away by everyone else.

It may well have been factual, but it's still completely irrelevant to her standing as an MP when there's no evidence she still holds those views, and there's no apparent hypocrisy on her part. The reason why it's not being reported elsewhere isn't some grand conspiracy as others are suggesting, but because it isn't a story.

Great post.
I agree, regarding the Philippa Stroud non-story. The associated Tweetfrenzy seemed to miss the absence of fact, or at least contemporary fact, in the report. There was a lot more in the way of insinuation...
Another Grauniad writer just decided my vote:
'Voting is always a balance between the moral and the strategic. What do I want, what can I get and what do I feel comfortable endorsing to get it.'
The realisation was that the answer (for me) is that there is no comfort in endorsing a least-worst option.

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