Out and about in the capital on Monday, I just missed seeing David Cameron’s Jag on its way to Buckingham Palace. Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of Labour’s election battle bus – not Harriet Harman’s pink one, but a red monster so bulbous that it almost clipped the traffic lights as it negotiated the turn. This is as close as I have got to the 2015 general election campaign so far.
No matter. Everything deemed of note can be found on the television news, or on websites, or on social media. Cameras and a helicopter followed the Prime Minister’s car to record what was now a courtesy call rather than a constitutional requirement. Hard hats and hi-vis jackets have become the party leaders’ campaign uniform as they try to make common cause with working people. David Cameron even found a hard-hat opportunity while visiting Sainsbury’s London headquarters – opening a whole new front in Britain’s “supermarket wars”.
Just consider, though, that you fancied a spot of election action over the Easter holiday – which, as a curious and potentially engaged voter, you might. A public meeting, maybe, or a rally, or a walkabout by a candidate – how would you find it? Media coverage of the campaign may seem exhaustive, but look carefully and you will find almost nothing announced in advance. You would have had to be well inside the loop to meet Samantha Cameron in Ukip heartland yesterday. Or Ed Miliband at a particular factory in Huddersfield. Or Nick Clegg at a hedgehog sanctuary on Monday.
Such events are staged more for the politicians’ benefit than for ours, as voters, and they are presented entirely on their terms. Even the BBC at times omits to report exactly where a campaign event has taken place, even what town. George Osborne was shown yesterday in what looked like a catering establishment, but we were not told where he was. The point is not the where or the when (journalistic basics though these may be), but the designated soundbite of the day and the (edited) image.
Weeks ago, we were told this would be the first social-media election. (The same was said five years ago, too, but let that pass.) In so far as this is a social-media election, the new(ish) tools are working more to the politicians’ advantage than to ours. If there is no change in the remaining weeks, this will be a campaign conducted almost entirely in a virtual world, with barely any actual contact in real time between the electors and those to be elected. Tonight’s televised pseudo-debate could be the last time before the election that either putative prime minister has to face questions, live, from real people.
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
1/6 Settled Silvers
These are the comfortably-off over-60s, still in work or drawing a decent pension – or both – who are enjoying their entitlements such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licence. They are worried about immigration and Europe. Both the Conservatives – who are pledging to keep benefits for wealthier pensioners – and Ukip want their votes
2/6 Squeezed Semis
Slightly older than the Harassed Hipsters, they are the second key group for Labour’s family-focused election strategy. They are married couples on low to middle incomes who own unpretentious semi-detached homes in suburban areas. In 2001, these were the Pebbledash People sought by the Conservatives. Now the pebbledash is gone and a modest conservatory has been built at the back
3/6 Aldi Woman
In 1997 and 2001 she was Worcester Woman – a middle-class Middle Englander shopping at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Today, the age of austerity means she still goes to Waitrose for her basic food shop but cannily switches to Aldi for her luxury bargains such as Parma ham and prosecco. Identified by Caroline Flint, she is a key target of both Labour and the Conservatives
4/6 Glass Ceiling Woman
In her thirties or forties, she has an established career under her belt, perhaps in the “marzipan layer” – one position below the still male-dominated senior executive level. She is now, according to Nick Clegg, forced into making the “heart-breaking choice” between staying at home to bring up her children and going to work and forking out for high-cost, round-the-clock childcare
5/6 Harassed Hipsters
One of the two key groups identified by Labour as crucial to hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. Well-paid professional couples, often with children, they live in diverse urban and metropolitan areas rather than the suburbs. More comfortably off than most swing voters, they are time poor – struggling to balance raising a young family with busy work schedules
These are mainly first-time voters, though some are in their twenties – students and digital-age generation renters helping to fuel the “Green Surge”. Idealists, but with no tribal loyalty to any party, they are anti-austerity, middle class, living in urban areas. Despite studying at university or recently graduated, they are struggling to find decent jobs and want cheaper housing and a higher minimum wage
Voters deserve better. For a start, it would be nice to know where the battle buses are going – tomorrow, or the day after, if not quite next week. A few maps and itineraries, perhaps, with the estimated timing of stops. And how about a diary on each party’s central website, showing where leading politicians (ministers, shadow ministers, etc) will be when, day by day, hour by hour? That is the very least that French and German voters expect. Of course, party machines need flexibility, but I have covered elections in many parts of the world and the paucity of information available here, in any medium, is shameful for an advanced democracy. It’s not as though no one knew there was an election coming.
If you have time to hire an attack-dog supremo, rent additional offices, set up phone banks and charter a mega-bus, you have time to let the hoi polloi where and when they can find you. And if they then use that information to turn up with a welcome balloon or a hostile placard or dressed in a chicken suit, so be it. Ah, yes, but party managers will object, it’s a scary world; there are serious threats out there – think knives and guns, rather than clucking chickens – and this is true. But senior politicians enjoy elaborate security.
When US presidential candidates hit the campaign trail, even post-9/11, everyone knows they are coming. New media and old, from TV news and street advertising hoardings to social media and posters on trees, spread the word. The same happens in most of continental Europe – and Scotland’s “Yes” campaign was similarly inclusive. Its website listed events all over Scotland. The idea was to encourage people to turn up – and maybe that is why they did. The idea here seems to be to keep the public at bay.
A spurious reason for the difference might be that Scotland had a national referendum, whereas a general election in a parliamentary system is fought at local level. And it is true that in marginal constituencies the picture seems slightly better. You can find candidates who seem willing to meet the voters at scheduled walkabouts and hustings, and more may even now be booking school halls.
But if it is all about electing your local MP, then why are the party leaders so keen to don their hard hats and dominate the airwaves? Why are they touring the country – Cameron has promised to campaign in “all four corners of all four nations of the UK” – but doing their best to avoid voters?
It is a very long time since a general election was only about the local MP. As one of the first cohort of 18-year-olds to vote, I heard Barbara Castle and Iain McLeod speak at Sheffield City Hall. I don’t remember their appearance being treated as a secret until it appeared on the television news, or any nonsense about “an invited audience”.
Public information and access are vital elements of democracy. I have queued with ordinary Americans to hear Bill Clinton speak in draughty school gyms; I have stood on rain-sodden town squares with ordinary Germans, listening to Angela Merkel, and I have held my ears as French farmers heckled would-be president, Nicolas Sarkozy. If our political leaders want to conduct a virtual campaign, they should not be surprised, come 7 May, if they are rewarded with support that is also more virtual than real.Reuse content