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28 May 2001

Nobody is watching, nobody cares

Election 2001 - Manifestos, leaflets and press releases pour out, but the Scandinavian fore

By Jackie Ashley

“Why is it,” a non-political friend asks, “that despite everything that’s been going wrong for Labour during the past few weeks, they still seem to be enjoying the same storming lead in the polls?” She added that journalists like myself must be mad leaving the house at 6.45am every morning to attend the party press conferences, when the election coverage in the media seems to be making not a jot of difference to how people intend to vote.

Perhaps she’s right. Leaving the round of press conferences every day – with a two-inch-thick wodge of leaflets detailing the parties’ latest claims and counter-claims – you certainly begin to wonder whether a few small forests in Scandinavia have died in vain. It is a desperate morning ritual, during which the trayfuls of breakfast offerings (the Conservatives’ Danish pastries are by far the best) fail to buy better headlines or happier, less sceptical hacks. And as the day progresses, frantically, from interview to rebuttal to stunt to campaign photocall to evening rally, it is all too easy to stop and ask worriedly: is anybody out there listening?

The bigger truth is that, with Labour coasting in the polls (as it has been, apart from a brief petrol-fuelled blip, for four years), this is the election it was always going to have to try quite hard to lose.

At times, to be fair, it has seemed to be doing its best: the slow start in the first week, trailing behind the Conservatives who were quick off the mark with their election manifesto; the assaults in the second week, both verbal (from Sharon Storer on the health service) and physical (from John Prescott); and, in the third week, an ill-judged attempt by Labour’s general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, to bludgeon the media, and the revival of that old demon, the National Insurance contribution ceiling – which, Labour mythology has it, did for the party in the 1992 election. Labour’s two-day effort to say nothing was burst apart by sharp punching from Michael Portillo and a relentless press pack who refused to let the issue go.

Yet through it all, the Labour ship has ploughed magnificently onwards, a few “pings” from tiny Tory gunboats barely denting the paintwork as it heads for a second safe victory. I see three reasons for this.

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First, Labour has rightly stressed its economic record throughout this campaign, and it is on this crucial issue that many people made up their mind to stick with the party long before the campaign started. Gordon Brown may be grimly repetitive in press conferences, but his message has sunk in. And there is a feel-good factor around at the moment: low interest rates and mortgages, low unemployment, low inflation, low fear. If the international bear is around the corner, he hasn’t been heard growling yet.

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Second, there is the question of leadership. I don’t understand it, because I find William Hague quite personable, witty and a lot less off-putting than some of his would-be usurpers. Yet it is indisputable: he is an electoral liability. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats report that their private pollings show he’s actually losing votes for the Tory party in areas where he has been campaigning. It’s that hair. It’s that voice. As one Labour backroom boy chortled: “The public really do think he’s the weirdo you always dread coming to sit next to you on the bus.”

Third, there’s the big question – to which Labour will still give only a tentative answer – of whether the public mood has finally swung from wanting tax cuts above all else to acknowledging that investment must be put into the public services. I believe the country has changed. The Labour leadership is taking no chances with income tax, yet by refusing to rule out a rise in NI ceilings it is admitting the point. People know that if you pay more in tax, you get better public services; if you want tax cuts, then the public services will suffer. The public appetite seems to be for better public services.

These are formidable obstacles for the Tories, who seek to turn up the heat in the final days of the campaign. Expect lots more on asylum (now a questionable tactic, according to a recent Guardian poll, which showed a majority in favour of allowing economic migrants into the country), crime and, above all, Europe. But, as Lady Thatcher so helpfully demonstrated, Europe remains the issue that cracks the Conservative Party apart. In any case, these are secondary issues, perhaps attractive to a good many voters, but not attractive enough to change their minds over the vital issue of economic competence.

So can anything really go wrong? If the latest eruption of the foot-and-mouth epidemic spreads, it would revive some smouldering anger. The other, more serious worry is that the Conservatives may implode too soon, letting apathy back into the game in a big way. Ministers and Labour backbenchers who have been on the stump around the country are reporting an appalling lack of interest from younger voters. There are lots of reasons for this, but the basic lack of racecourse tension is significant. How can you drum up interest in a one-horse race?

Labour expected the Tory campaign to begin to fall apart in its last week, with attention turning to the potential leadership battle and the future direction of the party. It is already Westminster gossip that some of the rivals for Hague’s crown will start to stake out their claims on election night itself. There are already reports of a clash between the Hague camp (determined to lose by as small a percentage as possible, by getting out the hangers, floggers, Little Englanders, south-coast xenophobes and tax-paranoiacs at all costs) and the Tories’ advertising agency, Yellow M, which shares the views of those looking further ahead. They include the Portillo-ite reshapers of the Tory party who don’t care too much what happens this year, but have an eye to the election after this one.

To stand any chance of holding on to his job, Hague has to appeal to die-hard supporters, rather than floating voters who will have no say in any leadership election. But the floaters have noticed. If Tory support in the polls, which is already slipping, starts to fall dramatically, the public may conclude, quite naturally, that it will not only be a walkover for Blair, but a massacre. So why bother to vote?

The only thing that could have set this election alight was a Tory breakthrough on some issue that really caught the public imagination. It hasn’t happened yet. The implications are huge – for the future of the public services, for parliamentary democracy, for the reshaping of right-wing politics. But there we are. Short of an opinion poll showing a catastrophic slide in Labour’s standing, nobody is watching and nobody cares.

Good news is no news.