Roll up, roll up, for the dirtiest show in town

Some elections are exciting, many are boring, few matter ... but three in the past century or so were true turning points. Sean O'Grady wonders if we are on the brink of another seismic shift
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Indy Politics

During the 1987 election, the Conservatives' campaign coordinator and Margaret Thatcher's favourite minister, Lord Young, conceived the idea of hiring an airship, painting a Tory logo on the side, and flying it over every town the Prime Minister was on her way to with "Maggie's Coming" in giant flashing letters underneath.

That such a bizarre stunt never took place is irrelevant. It serves to demonstrate that the crassness of the political classes is nothing new. This election, like those before it, will be full of lies, half-truths, twisted facts, spurious polls, bent statistics, limp humour, inevitable sleaze, tedious photo-ops, vacuous slogans, "gaffes" (ie the occasional rare shards of truth and reason), media distortions, the occasional scuffle, and negative propaganda (or "telling the truth about our opponents"). The odd uplifting snatch of Purcell, Holst, D:Ream or even Andrew Lloyd Webber shouldn't fool us. Politics is a filthy old game; always has been. It's just that now we can digitise all the silliness and nastiness.

Imagine the impact of a claim, carried four days before polling day by The Daily Mail, that the Labour Government had been secretly colluding with an enemy power. The idea that Labour ministers are crypto-Communists has never been entirely absent from the right-wing press, but back in 1924 the Mail surpassed any media smear before or since by printing a letter purporting to come from the Russian head of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev, implicating the Labour government in a plot to turn Britain Bolshevik.

The letter was a forgery, but in an era before 24-hour rolling news and instant rebuttal units, and possibly because of its very grossness, it was hard to nail. The first Labour Cabinet didn't have much hope of getting re-elected, but after the Mail had finished with them they were lucky not to be hanged for treason. Incensed as they are about the 50p tax rate, it seems unlikely the Mail will resort to anything so venal this time.

Not that that will stop the press indulging in a little personal abuse, as always. The modern master assassins are to be found at The Sun. It was they who, in 1992, almost destroyed the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown by printing allegations about his private life (Ashdown turned the tables by confessing, and his poll ratings improved – a turning point for such stories). It was The Sun also that in 1983 ran a vicious double-page spread about Labour leader Michael Foot entitled "Do You Want This Old Man to Run Britain?" – as if age was the greatest of his many political problems. (One of Foot's Shadow Cabinet at the time blamed his "oxyacetylene welder's glasses and the fact that on TV he looked like a lizard who had just stumbled out into the sun").

Gentler was the The Daily Mirror's front page in 1951: "Whose Finger on the Trigger?" What they implied was that that old warmonger Churchill might one day, befuddled by strokes, brandy or the pet cockatoo that used to perch on his head, absent-mindedly start a nuclear war with Russia.

Politicians are rarely as vicious as the press, though they try. When, back in 1964, the Tory Lord Hailsham responded to a heckler's cry of "What about Profumo?" with the explosive "If you can tell me there are no adulterers on the front bench of the Labour Party, you can talk to me about Profumo," he sparked nervousness on both sides. (Hailsham was soon nicknamed "bonkers", after he said the British public would be "stark, staring bonkers" to vote Labour. He later served as Lord Chancellor under Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher).

Even with what we now know about the dark side of Tony Blair, the "Demon Eyes" poster produced by M&C Saatchi for a desperate Tory party in 1997 still has impact. When he saw the "New Labour, New Danger" attack, Mandelson supposedly issued the command, "Get me a fucking bishop!" to condemn the poster, and a senior churchman duly obliged. It was the most memorable poster since Saatchi & Saatchi's "Labour Isn't Working" in 1979. As graphic art, Labour's efforts in 1945, "Now Win the Peace", are still striking, and have stood the test of time.

A now equally venerable tradition is the buttock-clenchingly embarrassing political rally. Who can forget that image of Kinnock, Prescott, Cook and Mandelson distractedly tapping away to "Things Can Only Get Better" in 1997? Or Kenny Everett's call to kick Michael Foot's stick away and bomb Russia in 1983, to the soundtrack of Vince Hill's "It's Maggie for Me". Further back, we encounter the Grimethorpe Colliery Institute Band, the Humphrey Lyttelton jazz group, Vanessa Redgrave in a maternity smock, Pakistani dancers, African drummers and Harry Corbett (as Harold Steptoe) reverberating around the Empire Pool, Wembley, for Labour's launch in September 1964.

Can the parties top any of that this time? We know that they want to copy Obama. Back in 1979, the novel idea of a politician doing something entirely artificial for the cameras was also imported from America. In the first recognisable "photo opportunity", Thatcher cuddled a calf, and husband Denis remarked: "If we're not careful, we'll have a dead calf on our hands." It was his last public utterance. The baby cow did expire shortly after it received the Thatcher treatment, much as the national economy was to do, but it was a moment of birth – the inaugural event in an era of politicians who turn up on building sites in hard hats, at biscuit factories in little white trilbies, and on farms in wellies, holding livestock the wrong way.

A classy version of the photo-op was Labour's campaign launch in 1997, which found Blair at a school, preaching in front of stained-glass windows to the well-scrubbed pupils – just like the satirists' portrayal of him as the vicar of St Albions. No matter: he performed a miracle and made the "education, education, education" slogan flesh. Not that vacuous sloganeering is confined to New Labour:

– "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" (Tory, 2005). This was "dog-whistle" politics, signalling the right message to those who were thinking what they thought Michael Howard was thinking, if he was thinking what they wanted him to be thinking – which he clearly wanted them to think he was thinking. Not nice thoughts, though.

– "Britain Forward Not Back" (Labour, 2005). What?

– "Britain United: The Time has Come" (Liberal/SDP Alliance 1987). Still waiting.

– "Modernise With Macmillan" (1964). SuperMac quit before the Tories had the chance to road-test this improbable attempt to drag their Edwardian chief into the jet age.

– "Let's Go With Labour" (1964). Leader Harold Wilson wisely rejected the first draft, "On The Go With Labour", which sounded like an ad for laxatives.

The best slogan was the Tories' elegant one, devised by ad agency Colman, Prentis & Varley, for the newly affluent society of 1959: "Life's better with the Conservatives: don't let Labour ruin it" – reworked frequently since. The SNP's "It's Scotland's oil" was powerful enough to almost sweep them to freedom in the Seventies.

A bland appeal can be OK; confused is not. Take Ted Heath in 1974, a man who made his own misfortune. The embattled Tory Prime Minister, in the middle of his titanic struggle with striking miners, put the nation on a three-day week, declared a state of emergency, and called an election a year-and-a-half before time. He asked, "Who Governs Britain?" "Not you, pal," came the reply. Heath's cause was compromised because he referred the miners' pay claim to an independent board before he called the election. Midway through the election, the board reported that it was fine to give the miners more money, so negating the basis of the election. As his assistant, Douglas Hurd, recorded at the time: "The Government is now vainly wandering over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to, and being massacred all the time."

The Tories didn't outdo this futility until William Hague's 2001 mission to "Save The Pound". Given that Blair had given a guarantee that there would be no entry to the euro without a referendum, Hague's single-issue campaign was pointless. He achieved a net gain of one seat – more than he deserved.

Weak party election broadcasts are also there to savour. The first TV appeal was the worst. It was delivered live in 1951 by the 80-year-old Liberal Herbert Samuel, who sat alone in a studio and read from a 15-minute script, scarcely looking at the camera. He was cut off in mid-sentence when, in a rhetorical flourish, he inadvertently gave the producer the pre-arranged signal that he'd finished. The Glasgow Herald commented that the broadcast "made no concession to the viewing public at all".

Things could only get better. The best was the Hugh Hudson-directed effort that Mandelson organised for Neil Kinnock in 1987. It was nicely shot and had Denis Healey comparing Kinnock to Gorbachev, and boosted Kinnock's ratings. John Major's advisors copied it for 1992. Called The Journey, the film saw Major going back to see his old gaff in Brixton, where the impoverished Major-Bull family had had digs in the Fifties. Was it still there? Major peered though his big specs and the Jaguar's bullet-proof glass at his humble past. "It is. It is, it's still there, it's still there." He reminisced, in that curious language of his, about when he used to "erect a soapbox" in Brixton High Street and "engage in badinage", and he was seen buying kippers and a pound of tomatoes in the market.

Maybe it gave Major the idea of getting his soapbox out again, this time in marginal Luton's town centre for the 1992 general election battle. Major's soapbox was a Conservative Central Office document box, and a custom-built aluminium one followed. It was the most innovative election prop of the past two decades – which is not saying much.

This year, too, there will be "moments". Moments such as the Prescott punch in 2001; the Battle of Knutsford Heath between the Hamiltons and the white-suited Martin Bell in 1997; Kinnock's whooping "We're allright!" in Sheffield in 1992; Mrs Thatcher's support for private medicine – "to enable me to go into hospital on the day I want, at the time I want and with the doctor I want" in 1987.

Politicians will be embarrassed – as was Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe when his hovercraft broke down on Sidmouth beach in 1974, or as when the aristocratic Tory Sir Alec Douglas-Home, revealingly and disastrously, referred to old-age pensions as "donations" in 1964; or when Churchill claimed Labour "would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance" in 1945.

Some elections are exciting, many are boring, few matter. Three in the past century or so were turning points: the Liberal landslide of 1906, which founded the welfare state; Labour's in 1945, which gave us the NHS; and the Thatcher win in 1979, which undid much of those governments' works over three radical terms of office.

On that roughly 30-to-40-year cycle, we are due a pretty revolutionary change of direction round about now. We have more chance of seeing Gordon Brown in an airship.