A campaign without poetry

It is the fag end of the U.K. election campaign, but except for the Scottish National Party, the three main parties do not offer a clear road map for what they will do if elected to power

May 04, 2015 12:06 am | Updated April 02, 2016 08:02 pm IST

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron takes part in a campaign event at the headquarters of a supermarket chain in Leeds, northern England.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron takes part in a campaign event at the headquarters of a supermarket chain in Leeds, northern England.

“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” said Mario Cuomo, who, as a three-term governor of New York State, knew a thing or two about winning elections. But there has been precious little poetry in Britain’s election campaign, now in the final countdown to Thursday’s (May 7) voting. No soaring verse, not much in the way of vision and inspiration, and quite a lot of uninspiring doggerel.

A desperately close election has produced a disappointingly dull campaign. The opinion polls show the two main parties, the governing Conservatives and the Labour opposition, neck and neck. Both have delivered cautious, risk-averse campaigns, in large part shaped by strategists who have been shipped in from overseas — the Conservatives have turned to an Australian, Lynton Crosby, once described as “a master of the dark political arts”, while Labour has been guided by David Axelrod, seen as an architect of Barack Obama’s electoral successes.

A topsy-turvy debate

So both main parties have been focussed on addressing their perceived weaknesses in a way which makes the political debate seem a bit topsy-turvy — the Conservatives, advocates of a smaller state, have been offering bold guarantees of spending on Britain’s very popular and hugely expensive public funded health service, while Labour, seen as champions of social justice, have pledged not to increase the taxes which could give some leeway for an easing of austerity.

It doesn’t ring true with the voters. Both parties have insisted that they will get on top of Britain’s still cavernous budget deficit — but given all their pledges on taxes and spending, the numbers don’t appear to add up.

With a week to go to voting day, the three main party leaders — the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of his smaller coalition ally Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, and Labour’s Ed Miliband — appeared in turn on a ‘Question Time’ TV programme to be hauled over the coals by a studio audience of ordinary voters.

Who came out on top? By general consensus, the audience.

The event took place in the northern city of Leeds in Yorkshire (I have to declare an interest, it’s my home city), noted for its gritty, no-nonsense approach to life. The sharp, often barbed, questions put to the party leaders reflected a widespread distrust of politicians and a feeling that they are not being straight with the electorate. Whatever the outcome of the elections, few people (apart from those in Scotland perhaps) will be out on the streets celebrating.

The main parties have been spending their money on highly targeted direct messaging — letter, phone, email and social media — of what they see as the crucial swing voters, the fairly small proportion of the electorate in the marginal seats who still have to make a firm decision about which party to support. For casual visitors to Britain, the campaign is almost invisible — paid-for election advertising on TV isn’t allowed, and this time round there are hardly any billboard posters, no really big election rallies, not much in the way of street meetings, just a little door-to-door canvassing and a few,very few, signs of individual allegiance in the way of party posters in living room windows.

Little life, no breadth

If the campaign has had little life, it’s also lacked breadth. Lots of big issues have barely been discussed — hardly a mention of the environment and climate change, surprisingly little about membership of the European Union, and although Labour sought to engage on foreign policy, particularly the long-term failure of international interventions in Libya and elsewhere, it didn’t really get any traction.

It’s very difficult to sum up in a sentence what any of three main parties stand for, what makes them distinct. They don’t offer a clear narrative about the country’s difficulties and how to tackle them. Perhaps inevitably, attention has turned to the style and personalities of the leaders. Is Mr. Cameron too posh to run Britain? Is Mr. Miliband too inexperienced and awkward? And some of the most discussed campaign moments have been incidents of little political consequence which reveal something about character.

Mr. Cameron made the misstep of “forgetting” which football team he supported. He’s on the record as an Aston Villa fan, a Birmingham team, but overlooked this when talking up London’s West Ham. It gave the impression that he was inauthentic. He has been criticised from within his own party for running a low-key, laidback campaign — in the closing stages, he’s sought to portray himself as an impassioned politician, but again at times it has appeared artificial.

Mr. Miliband has run a better campaign. For a leader who once had a dismal personal standing in opinion polls, he has appeared confident and at ease. His moment of controversy was being interviewed by wacky comedian and self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand, who has in the past urged his millions of youthful Twitter followers not to bother voting. Some said it was demeaning for a party leader to talk to such a maverick; others that it was a good way of reaching youngsters who don’t often give party politics a second thought.

But in the closing stages of the campaign, the main talking point is what the main party leaders would do if, as seems very likely, there’s an inconclusive result. The only big winner in prospect is Scotland’s pro-independence party — which currently has six MPs and could see that number increase sevenfold. It is well led, has a clear message, and isn’t tarnished by the disdain with which the main U.K.-wide parties are viewed. It has managed to generate that rarest of qualities in this election, political enthusiasm. If there’s a hung Parliament, the Scottish National Party says it’s willing to help Labour form a government, an offer that has been, perhaps recklessly, rejected.

The polling stations close at 10 o’clock on Thursday evening, and at that moment the broadcasters will release their exit polls. Votes are counted immediately, and by breakfast time on Friday we will know just how messy a verdict Britain’s voters have delivered.

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.)

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