| New reality
At long last May 5, polling day for the 2005 UK general election, is almost upon us and the campaign boils as lukewarm as water at an extreme height. This election is more likely to be remembered for the extraordinary excitement generated by the death of a pope in Rome, even for the small waves caused by the wedding of a middle-aged prince and his erstwhile mistress, than for its own sake. Not so many years ago, when several generations of my family were actively involved in national politics, politicians were people of stature who made live speeches for live audiences, not soundbytes for media reportage. My great-great-great aunt, who died a few years ago in her nineties, could remember the excitement when she was a child, of seeing the great Victorian prime minister, Gladstone, at a political rally. Campaigning now is almost wholly media focussed and it is the loss of all of us that we now view and hear with scepticism the faintly unreal figurines on our screens and the egregious voices on our radios.
The studied impartiality of the BBC and the studied bias of the print media according to the political persuasion of individual proprietors, add to our sense of unreality and disassociation. In old-style politics, there was a clear understanding of party platforms based on the social history and anticipated domestic and international future of this country. There was space in the national forum for brilliant intellects, great communicators and maverick eccentrics who added spice to the political mix. How rare it is now to hear a real tub-thumping rallying speech from a politician; the last man who even attempted such a thing was Conservative Michael Heseltine. This was the sort of campaigning that had people buoyed along on a wave of excitement to the voting booth, to use their individual and important vote for a future clearly laid out by a real and believable person within the well understood parameters of his or her party's remit. Now there is no sense of substance and solid intention beneath the froth of media coverage, rising like a souffl' over a soup of wishy-washy opinion and petty point-scoring amongst a collection of anonymous grey suits.
The opinion polls this week show an increasing Labour lead as floating voters take the easiest path through the confused oneupmanship of the political parties, in each one of which most shades of opinion are represented on every issue from tax to Iraq. There is a certain desperation in the Conservatives' reviving of the Blair-bashing on the war although the decision to ally this country with the Americans in the war on terror should be seen historically as the defining moment of the last government and of major importance to our future. Until the last few days, Iraq has been a poor runner-up to immediate domestic tax issues and more minor economic considerations, showing a distressingly typical memory loss amongst the electorate as we all draw back into the insular 'Island Fortress' mentality of a 'nation of shopkeepers'. In spite of the strong criticism of Tony Blair, the war remains neither a clear vote winner nor loser for Labour or Conservative parties. Both parties carry wide ranges of internal opinion pro- and anti-war and the way British involvement has been handled. It is essentially an issue that reflects badly on the veracity and personality of the prime minister, and a degree of petulance has become apparent in his recent handling of the doubt cast on his integrity. This may impact on his own long-term future as Labour leader more than on the Labour vote this polling day.
Further internal gulfs of opinion dividing parties over immigration have reduced the importance of that debate to horrible squabbling and name-calling, whilst all privately agree that 'something must be done'. The 'something' is hazily sketched by the major parties but cries of 'racism', unless reasonably directed at the shameful fanatics of the British National Party, do not allow the space for sensible discussion of policy that will work towards and celebrate our potential as a well-ordered and equal multi-racial society. In spite of Labour's best and somewhat successful efforts to cast Conservative leader, Michael Howard, as the villain of the immigration piece, the only party that comes out of the discussion well are the Liberal Democrats, who are seen to stand for good old-fashioned tolerance and common-sense, whether or not their actual platform is a little nebulous.
There are differing media views on the potential impact of the Liberal Democrats in the election. By and large, they are seen as rather good chaps with a decent, albeit weak, leader whose new baby caused a minor stir of sympathetic interest in the first week of the campaign. Their image as a party of energetic local candidates, who focus on local issues, and as a small but attractive voice of reason on the national scene, may garner votes from the two main parties. The defection of a former left-wing Labour MP to the party last weekend, quite rightly made the merest ripple in the press and, I suspect, the smallest dent in Labour morale. The great mass of the population had, in any case, probably never heard of Brian Sedgemore or could care less what he did. The Lib Dems' highest ambition must be to upset the results in a few marginal constituencies. One of the things we can be sure in the early morning of May 6 is that we will not see Charles Kennedy as the new prime minister. He may have cause for celebration in a few extra faces in his parliamentary party and as the reason for some of the disaffected Labour and Conservative supporters to have gone out to vote.
Amongst young people the Lib Dems seem to have some appeal although they doubt the reality of their promise to abolish tuition fees for university. They neither like nor trust the major party politicians who mouth the same platitudes night after night on television between episodes of the Simpsons and the soaps. The young do not see anything for them in the opinions of these grey figures and view democratic process and government with a jaundiced eye. Young women, aware of the struggles of the suffragettes to gain them the vote, feel a slightly greater obligation to use it. In general, however, potential first- and second-time voters have not apparently received the spotlight they deserve as the next generation of our democracy.
The two major parties, in this last phase of negative campaigning, are attempting to herd voters into the booths by abominating the potential of their immediate rivals with slogans such as, 'If you value it, vote for it,' from Labour, and, 'Send Mr Blair a message,' from the Conservatives. Attacking the opposition has become the standard of the election for both parties and has added to the negative image of mendacious and dissimulating politicians, a sense of the shallowness of policies which are not worth airing on their positive merits. It is easier and safer by far to attack putative alternatives than stand on hard and often unpalatable policies. The electorate is unlikely to be impressed by this sort of campaigning. We are bored of slogans, generally mistrust the public relations operatives and spin wizards behind them and want, as in the past, a clear picture of who stands for what. When Tony Blair first launched 'New Labour', he seemed like a breath of fresh air, a genuine politician who looked people in the eye and told it how it was. The air of 1997 has been recycled once too often and has become decidedly stale these days. The gilt has worn off the idealistic gingerbread in the face of support for a US governed by the religious right and equivocation on everything from the national health and education to hunting and the countryside. Young people are not much interested in the whole lacklustre process and much of the population will join them in thinking that it really doesn't matter who they vote for or if they vote at all.
I do not suppose there are many very small children today who will remember, as nonagenarians, the thrill of the 2005 election campaign. I can remember at much the same age, the drama of the by-election, in which my father first entered parliament and a sense of the greatness of some of the elder statesman who came to speak on his behalf. I must be getting very old but that was real politics, not the virtual reality of today, which generates little more interest than a football game.