TCS Daily

Bored of Elections

By Helen Szamuely - May 4, 2005 12:00 AM

This is possibly the dullest British election campaign in anybody's memory. There is hardly any campaigning going on, for one thing. Most people have not caught sight of any of their candidates and three days before the election not all the electoral addresses have come thudding through the letter boxes. There are few posters and even fewer stickers in windows. One does not see groups of people with rosettes buttonholing potential voters and even offices of parties seem to have a lackluster air.

Yet, in many ways, the result as it becomes known towards Friday morning is as unpredictable as any in modern history. We have all accepted that Blair will get his third term, though if his appearance on Question Time is anything to go by, he is not as sure and happy about developments as he ought to be. That is not what makes this election so dull. Thatcher's second and third terms were also entirely predictable, but the campaign was full of zest and excitement, imparted by that redoubtable lady's relish for a good fight. Blair hates to be unpopular, hates being challenged, hates having to justify himself.

There are several imponderables. The biggest of all is the turn-out. It has been going down in the last two elections, reaching the extraordinarily low 59 percent in 2001. It is entirely possible that the level will sink even lower. Too many people seem uninterested and unenthusiastic.

The best way of describing this particular election campaign is that it consists of 600 odd local election campaigns. Despite the media and politicos hyperventilating about the legal advice on the Iraqi war (in itself an impossibility as the basis in law does not exist), the campaigns on the ground, in so far as they exist, are all on local issues.

In my own constituency, for instance, the first item on the Conservative candidate's list is stopping the West London tram. Whatever one may think about that project, it is not of national interest. The most important item on the Labour candidate's list is stopping the Conservative candidate.

Other campaigns are about local schools and hospitals, rural issues and the ban on hunting, immigration and asylum seekers and how they affect a particular area and so on. This will mean inevitably that the national results will be very patchy and this also explains to some extent why the polls have been so moody, unreliable and why the feel one gets from the odd bits of political literature, campaigners on the ground and the posters is so different from what one reads in the newspapers.

The polls are not reliable because what little homogeneity British society had in the last two or three elections has disappeared. They are not reliable because people do not tell the truth. They are not reliable because different questions get contradictory answers.

Respondents enumerate all the reasons why they do not like or trust Tony Blair, then tell the questioner that he is the man they would like to see as the next prime minister, though, in fact, they prefer Conservative policies. Or they might explain that they do like Michael Howard more and think he is more likely to tell the truth, but nevertheless they will vote Labour (or, perhaps, not vote at all). Journalists have been run ragged by the unhelpfulness of the people. One can't help feeling sorry for them.

Because this election is not about issues or policies, it has had more personal nastiness than most. In the past it was only the Lib-Dems who resorted to underhand tactics, personal smears and forged electoral literature. This time round the Labour campaigners are doing the same. When one adds to that the persistent stories of electoral fraud around the postal votes, one can understand why there is a sour mood in the country and a feeling of "a pox upon both your houses".

Let me throw in a few more points: the unknown effect of smaller parties and individuals such as Robert Kilroy-Silk and George Galloway, who, incidentally overstepped the bounds of nastiness of even this election by mounting an anti-Semitic campaign against the egregious Oona King; the feeling that with Europe completely out of any discussion by the main parties the real election will be next year during the referendum campaign; the well-organized shock troops in the countryside, determined to defeat several of the most vociferous anti-hunt MPs, at least one of whom has ensured that 25 percent of his votes will be postal.

One noticeable and inexplicable factor is the apparent panic in the Labour ranks. The electoral arithmetic is on their side. Yet they seem uneasy, defiant, ready to smear their immediate opponents and Michael Howard. A few days ago the unions suddenly appeared on the scene with huge posters calling for anti-Tory votes. The Electoral Commission is investigating this extraordinary development as there are strict rules about money spent by third parties. (Not that the Electoral Commission ever does anything much by way of discipline.)

So, there we are. Bored with the campaign but enthralled by the unpredictable result, the people of Britain are waiting impatiently for it all to be over on Thursday evening. On Friday morning we should know the worst. Except that it will not be over. The way some constituency campaigns have been going, what with the postal votes, the potential fraud, the sudden appearance of money from unexpected sources and the dirty tricks, one can see numerous judicial challenges mounting up.

Electorally, this country has found itself in the 18th century, with all the fraud, chicanery and nastiness of those campaigns. Alas, the clothes are not gorgeous and the personalities are even more drab. If we are going to have Foxite political morals, why cannot we have the personality of Fox as well?


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