The election campaign that is now underway will be the closest fought for nearly twenty years. Back in 1992 Neil Kinnock was widely expected to kick John Major out of Downing Street but the Tory prime minister held on and it was the Labour leader who lost his job. Today, Labour is hoping to repeat the trick in reverse and for Gordon Brown to keep the job the world has expected him to lose.
Opinion polls have shown the Tory lead narrowing. The party is no longer certain of winning a clear victory. The way the voting system currently favours Labour means that Mr Brown could well cling on to power and the Liberal Democrats could emerge holding the balance of power in a hung parliament for the first time in over thirty five years. So the campaign, for once, could prove decisive.
But what should the campaign be about? What is it that will happen in the next four weeks that is most likely to sway people’s votes? And will the techniques of campaigning be as important as the content?
An auction of promises
General election campaigns are always a tussle between rival accounts of the past and competing visions of the future. They are partly a judgement about what the sitting government has achieved (or failed to achieve) and partly an auction of promises. They are about whether a government deserves re-election or whether it’s time for a change.
Gordon Brown has been prime minister for less than three years but his party has been in power for thirteen. Back in 1997 Labour claimed that “things could only get better”. Its supporters argue that they have indeed done so and cite a long list of achievements to justify their case that Labour deserves another five years in power. Their list includes devolution of power to Scotland and Wales; human rights and freedom of information legislation; increased rights for gays and other laws to protect minorities; huge increases in spending on health and education; benefits targeted to poor working families and to the needy elderly.
Opponents claim that, to the contrary, much has only got worse. David Cameron, the Tory leader, talks of ‘broken Britain’ resulting from Labour’s policies. But the subject that will be most contentious, both in relation to the record of the last thirteen years and to what should be done in the future, is the economy.
Until two years ago Gordon Brown boasted that as chancellor and prime minister he had presided over the longest period of economic growth in Britain’s history (albeit started under the previous Conservative government). He even claimed to have abolished ‘Tory boom and bust’. Now we have had the biggest bust in over seventy years and the long boom seems, in retrospect, like an unsustainable splurge of spending fuelled by irresponsible levels of debt. Mr Brown claims that the causes of the financial crisis that brought the economy into severe recession lay abroad, outside his control, and that he has led the world on the path back to recovery. His opponents say he has left Britain dangerously vulnerable and although much of the rest of the world is gradually getting back to normal it will be years before Britain is out of the woods.
The economy is also the ground on which the battle of competing futures will be fought. And yet, though the rhetoric will be fierce, the differences may seem much less significant to many voters. Should the painful process of reducing government debt begin this year or next? Should increased taxation come in the former of higher national insurance contributions, as the government is intending but which the Tories are committed to reversing, or in the form of higher rates of VAT, which Labour claims is the option the Tories will end up adopting (and which the chancellor, Alistair Darling, is thought to have favoured in the first place)? It is hard to imagine voters getting hugely exercised by such issues.
How people vote
It may be, in any case, that issues are not what determine how people vote. There is evidence that voters make up their minds in a more impressionistic way. They come to an overall view about which party seems more to share the outlook and values which they themselves espouse. In particular it seems that a lot hinges on how they assess the character of the leaders aspiring to become the country’s prime minister.
This is not surprising in a system which has become increasingly presidential. Prime ministers with large parliamentary majorities can do pretty much as they wish so the character of a largely unconstrained prime minister matters rather a lot - though perhaps less so this time when the leader who emerges as prime minister may have only a very small majority if he is lucky enough to have one at all.
During this election, for the first time, voters will have a new way of assessing their future prime minister: televised debates between the leaders of the main three parties. Whether or not the debates will prove an adequate means of judging qualities of character and leadership remains to be seen: some sceptics fear that the tight control over the format of the debates, insisted upon by the parties themselves, may mean that they will end up as rather stilted affairs revealing very little. Or perhaps the sceptics will be pleasantly surprised.
Britain and the new media
Even without the debates election campaigns have increasingly become marketing exercises to persuade voters (as consumers) that a particular leader is the ‘product’ they ought to ‘buy’. That is why the coming four weeks will be as much about photo opportunities as about argument. But there will be another big change in this election. It will be the first in Britain in which the so-called ‘new media’ – the internet and especially social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter – will be a major part of the parties’ armouries. Barack Obama proved the value of such campaigning when he won the American presidency in 2008 and here all the parties will be mounting an alternative viral campaign. Much of this will be beyond the control of bodies such as the Electoral Commission whose purpose is to secure fair play in the campaign. So prepare for all sorts of dirty tricks online.
What has not changed in this election, however, is the electoral system itself. What that means is that the result will still be decided in only the relatively small number of marginal seats which can change hands. If you live in one of those, expect to be bombarded by propaganda over the next four weeks. But if you don’t, you may be wholly ignored. For some people that is a denial of their democratic rights; for others, it will be an unalloyed blessing.
Rival visions of the future
What’s your view of the election campaign? Do you see it more as a judgement on thirteen years of Labour government or as an opportunity to choose between rival visions of the future? Do you think Labour deserves to be re-elected or is it time for a change? Which aspects of Labour’s record do you approve of and which do you disapprove of? How important is the economy – Labour’s record and what the parties now offer – in how you will vote? If you think it’s time for a change, which changes would you most hope for from a Tory government or from one over which the LibDems had influence? What do you most fear from such a government? Do you make up your mind how to vote with regard to policies or to a much more impressionistic view of the parties? How much does the personality and character of the potential prime ministers matter to you? What do you like and dislike about Brown, Cameron and Clegg? What, if anything, do you hope for from the leader debates? What do you make of the role of new media in the campaign? And how much will the campaign of the next four weeks matter to you in deciding whom to vote for?