A greyer shade of pale

Nobody would be surprised if one of the party leaders were to propose a traffic-cones hotline. In th

Watching the parties' first decisive electoral moves a month or so ago, one had a distinct feeling of deja vu. Faced with the apathy and disengagement of its core voters, the government had fallen back on apocalyptic stories about what the opposition was planning. Lest anyone accuse it of lacking substance, one or two of its best-known faces were trying to start a woolly debate about "Englishness" and "Britishness". Meanwhile, on 28 February, the Conservative Party announced that it would "change the law to make it illegal for convicted criminals to profit from writing about their crimes", thus offering a future devoid of the works of "Dodgy" Dave Courtney, and at least some of the oeuvre of Lord Archer. But new Labour's triangulatory instincts had long since kicked in. According to a BBC report, "The Labour Party said it had already set up a review to consider the issue."

It all recalled the drab tenor of the John Major years. With their martial graphics and shrill tone, the Labour billboards warning of an alleged £35bn in Tory cuts were redolent of the Tories' 1992 attack on Labour's "tax bombshell". Gordon Brown and David Blunkett's musings on national identity also bore faint traces of the Brixton bank clerk: of the much-maligned 1993 speech, in which he bowdlerised Orwell and painted a picture of "warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers", and his government's attempts to ally itself with Cool Britannia, before new Labour barged in. As for the crackdown on scribbling criminals, this was an example of what Tony Blair once called "eye-catching initiatives". And in that kind of ephemera, Major was surely ahead of his time. If one of the current party leaders were to propose a traffic-cones hotline, would anyone be surprised?

All three main parties now have their Majorish aspects. The Tories offer no end of examples; indeed, their current policies and announcements can make Major's anxieties about roadworks look like the stuff of high drama. True-crime potboilers are just one of their concerns: within seconds of logging on to the Tory website, you can find out their positions on road humps, mobile-phone masts, speed cameras and potholes ("Drivers face Blair potholes for another ten years," they reckon). The melding of such trivia with populist nastiness is apparently the work of their Australian guru Lynton Crosby - but the nastiness also echoes the government in which Michael Howard came of political age. Talking up the problems allegedly caused by travellers, for example, was a tactic first deployed by John Major in 1992. "New Age travellers? Not in this age. Not in any age," went his speech to that year's Tory conference. "Let others speak for these New Age travellers. We will speak for their victims."

The big-picture Conservatism we glimpsed briefly when William Hague wove stories about life in the Rother Valley is largely gone; these days, the Tories are back in a world of desiccated pragmatism. "Our approach and our policies are clearly based on practical responses to people's needs, rather than some ideological blueprint," their policy co-ordinator David Cameron MP recently wrote in the Guardian.

The Liberal Democrats - who cause the Tories more anxiety than they like to let on - contribute their own Majorisation by sticking to an approach exemplified by the very influential local Focus leaflet. "People know what the problems are when they walk out of their front door in the morning, so they don't need me to go on and on about what's wrong," Charles Kennedy told me last year. "What they want is a much more solution-based approach to politics, specific on individual issues, and then they build up a composite picture of the kind of people you are, and whether your case stacks up." Like a lot of what Kennedy comes up with, this is subtly bizarre stuff: a vision in which parties leave values to be projected on to them by the electorate.

Labour's approach often seems little different. Whether it's down to the credibility of Blair's Messianic streak being corroded by the war on Iraq, or the ever-present imperatives of the focus group, much of the government's election pitch offers little more inspiring than administrative competence. Its election pledges are characterised by an arid individualism: "Your family better off", "Your child achieving more". As for Major-ish trivia, Blair has form, with such earth-shaking ideas as drunken thugs being frogmarched to the cashpoint (July 2000) and a short-lived campaign against "fly-posting, dropping chewing gum, and graffiti" (November 2002), which apparently amounted to "the biggest immediate issue for people in the country".

It was not always thus. Though many of us might have bemoaned large parts of the new Labour project, Blair at least seemed equipped with a talent for diverting our attention with inspirational rhetoric. In 1995, he set out his attachment to "a moral purpose to life, a set of values, a belief in society, in co-operation . . . We aren't simply people set in isolation from each other, face to face with eternity, but members of the same family, the same community, the same human race." (The whole flourish ended: "This is my socialism.") In the same speech, he spoke of "making this the young country of my generation's dreams". By 2001, however, Blair's grand narratives had been overtaken by a new mundanity: by way of energising its voters, one of Labour's keynote slogans was "The work goes on".

For disaffected Labourites, Blair's retreat from the politics of Big Stories is perhaps proof that his brand of doublethink is starting to come undone; the communitarian, social-democratic sentiments of yore can't be heard, because increasingly they do not fit an "unremittingly new Labour" agenda.

Yet even the uneasy juncture at which the government has arrived might still leave room for more imaginative campaigning. First, as is frequently pointed out in the comment pages of the liberal press (witness Polly Toynbee's despondent articles in the Guardian), at least some of new Labour's record - chiefly the stuff that has emanated from the Treasury - could be framed in stirring terms. And second, even if equality is to be replaced with meritocracy and fraternity is binned in favour of individual choice, could the Blairites not at least start wrapping their case in slightly more visionary language?

All that said, perhaps a demand for Big Stories is rather old-fashioned. That is certainly the view of many of our politicians, the kind who tend to react to any challenge based on ideas with the complaint that the proposed debate is unnecessarily "intellectual" and "theoretical". In that context, one might even pay tribute to John Major as an unwitting seer - a politician who, after the Thatcher years, intuitively understood what the quietening of class conflict and the dissolution of tribal political loyalty entailed: managerialism, occasional descents into gimmickry, and policy aimed at the voter as customer. (It is one of the more interesting footnotes of Major's time in government that there was much behind-the-scenes debate about the placing of the apostrophe in his Citizen's Charter: it was "citizen's" rather than "citizens'" on account of the idea's consumerist impulse.)

But if hooking in supposedly atomised, politically promiscuous voters is the aim, the parties' Major-esque tactics do not actually seem to be working. Last month, a Populus poll for the Times presented its respondents with the suggestion that "there doesn't seem much difference between the parties any more". Fifty-eight per cent of those polled agreed; among swing voters, the figure was 67 per cent.

In both categories, the proportion who claimed not to take "an active interest in what the political parties say in their campaigns" was close to a half. Now, a month later, we hear that projected turnout at the election might tumble to roughly 50 per cent, thus beating the record set in the 1918 contest, during which many voters were still on their way home from the trenches.

To pin all this on a failure of mere rhetoric - as if the dysfunction of party politics could be reduced to a serious presentation problem - would be as shallow as the parties' discourse. Behind the greying of debate lies a whole tangle of factors: prosperity and stability stifling any conversation about the fundamentals; an electoral system that focuses importance on people held to be so fickle that the merest hint of political depth might scare them away; a typical career path to the Commons that seems to encrust even the sharpest brains with dried-up wonkery. Perhaps most importantly, for reasons at least partly bound up with the power of big corporations, the major parties have arrived at some points of consensus that leave little room for any strident campaigning at all. If, for example, you believe that private companies should be kept out of public services (which, according to one YouGov survey, applies to as many as 37 per cent of us), or that Britain should withdraw from the EU (apparently the opinion of just under a third), you will hear only differences of nuance.

Even within such limits, however, our politicians can surely do better. And in fairness to the Westminster class, at least some people are approaching the problem with a sense of urgency. Among more adventurous minds on the Labour side, there is at present a fashion for championing the politics of values and morality. For example, the Brownite minister Douglas Alexander, in a Smith Institute pamphlet - Telling It Like It Could Be - takes issue with a politics that emphasises "I want" against "I ought"; bemoans the "Oprahfication" of debate; and makes the case for "a rallying call that reflects who we are, what we stand for and for whom we govern". Unfortunately, on account of the Blair/Brown wars, Alexander, a former campaign co-ordinator, is not nearly as close to the front line as he probably should be. One can only hope that if his mentor (who, needless to say, remains one of Labour's few rousing rhetoricians) makes it to No 10, the party might start listening.

In the meantime, too few people seem to have grasped the problem. The Liberal Democrats provide a particularly instructive example. Whenever I visit sixth-form colleges and universities, the issues that are discussed most passionately - civil liberties, the plight of the developing world, the recklessness of the Bush government - seem to represent at least a potential opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. Each time developments align themselves in his favour, however, Charles Kennedy dispenses his views with all the passion and vision of a policeman filing an arrest report. Think back to his appearance at the Hyde Park rally of February 2003: "I have yet to be persuaded that the case for war against Iraq has been made," he said. Those were Major-esque words indeed.

In my darker moments, however, the disengagement of teenage firebrands worries me a little less than a political party whose profile can be traced back to initial stirrings of popularity that occurred - perhaps not coincidentally - while Major was prime minister. Unlike most of the Westminster elite, its leaders do speak a language of collective endeavour, common purpose and grand historical themes. Voters in such troubled constituencies as Barking, Keighley, Blackburn and Liverpool Riverside know them well: the party is called the British National Party.

John Harris is the author of So Now Who Do We Vote For?, published by Faber & Faber (£7.99). His website is www.sonowwhodowevotefor.net