Today we have entered that nether space between the end of the election campaign and the advent of its results. Time to reflect perhaps on what was both a ‘safe’—from the politicians’ point of view—and dull—from the public’s—six weeks. I’ve seen ballets with less orchestration. We were all waiting for something, anything to happen. Early on we had Michael Fallon’s mention of Ed’s relationship with his brother when talking about Trident for which he was roundly attacked in the media and by his opponents for ungentlemanly conduct. Then we had Ed’s stumble in the last TV debate but no tumble. There were no Gillian Duffy moments as in 2010. Politicians kept to the script—or were kept to the script—and unsurprisingly the polls did not really change dramatically with the nightly Newsnight poll showing up one seat, down two…with dull monotony. And where were the politicians? Yes there was 24/7 coverage of what the party leaders and their deputies were doing with the occasional outing for other leading figures but where were Theresa May, Vince Cable and the rest. Well apart from sporadic interviews on television and radio when their particular departments were under scrutiny, they have been largely invisible. The highlights (if that’s what you can call them) of the campaign were the TV debate when the ‘public’ finally had the opportunity of interrogating Cameron, Clegg and Miliband and the inexorable rise and rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Douglas Murray in his excellent article in yesterday’s Spectator is right when he argued that ‘This election campaign has shown a democracy in a horrible state of disrepair’.
Now you could argue that none of this is surprising in a political society dominated by the traditional and social media. What the public knows or is allowed to know is tightly controlled both by the campaign teams and by what the media chooses to cover and social media is often characterised by pundits and politicos talking to each other. The key was always to be on message. So the Conservative narrative focused on the economy and persuading voters not to allow Labour to mess it all up (again). Labour banged on about the NHS only being safe in their hands because of ‘creeping privatisation’ while omitting to say that there had been more privatisation between 1997 and 2010 than in the last five years, and how the better-off in society benefitted from Conservative government while the less well-off and especially those on benefits suffered from an aggressive and inhumane policy of austerity proposing to replace the inequity of the ‘bedroom tax’ with the morally superior ‘mansion tax’. Conservatives promised to enshrine tax policy for the next five years in legislation while the recent ‘Ed-stone’ from Labour contained promises so vacuous that I’m reminded of the notion of ‘let he who is without sin throw the first stone’. There has been a great deal of promises but very little substance of how any of them will be funded.
What has been remarkable in the campaign has been the failure of all those involved to address what many people regard as the central political issues. Given the anger felt in many communities about unfettered immigration from the EU and whether or not Britain should remain within Europe—the silence has been almost deafening. This is hardly surprising as neither Labour nor Conservative have a good record on either. The upsurge of immigration took place under Labour’s watch after 1997 while David Cameron’s promise to bring down immigration to tens of thousands a year has spectacularly failed. The Conservatives argued that the only way to get a referendum on Europe is to re-elect them but then focussing too much on the issue throws up the splits in the Conservative Party over Europe. For Labour, no referendum unless there are treaty changes—well we’ve heard that before from Labour but we didn’t get a referendum over the Lisbon Treaty under the last Labour government despite the same promise. The campaign was also bereft of any serious discussion of Britain’s place in the world apart from the Trident question and that’s settled anyway as both Conservative and Labour support Trident just disagreeing over whether it should be three or four submarines. There was equally little discussion about Libya or Syria or Iraq. Or law and order, the environment—apart from by the Greens—fracking and HS2…I could go on and on about the things that barely made it on to the political stage. If an election campaign is to motivate the public, then it needs to address those issues that lead to political engagement and that has been largely missing from what has been a highly controlled, anodyne process.