Mark Steel: The popular idea that all parties are the same is nonsense. But what voters yearn for is politicians with conviction, soul and humanity

There won't be a legal battle for image rights over T-shirts showing ministers' faces

It’s a year until the general election, and there’s so little enthusiasm for the main parties that the only way to get more than a handful of people to vote at all may be to change the wording on the ballot paper. So it should begin, “Which of the following candidates do you find the least repellent?”

Then it would continue: “As a guide, imagine having to go on holiday with them all. Now, if there’s one that only makes you think ‘Oh Jesus please spare me no no no, I’ll become a nun and wear a smock smothered in extra hot chilli sauce for ever rather than that’, but the thought doesn’t actually make you physically retch so that sick comes down your nose and you get a taste of a chipolata you had last Tuesday, place an X by the name of that candidate.”

That’s why, when the opinion polls say Labour are on 35 and the Conservatives on 34, it’s not percentage points, it’s their total number of supporters in the country.

It can look as if the next general election will be the first in which the results for each constituency could be read out by the man who does the football scores, and go “Labour 1 ConSERVatives 1; Liberal Democrats nil, Labour ONE.”

There’s a website that tries to encourage people to vote called “Who Should I Vote For?” It asks for your views on a range of issues, then tells you which party you’re closest to. But it makes the mistake of assuming that policies are the same as the reality. For example, the Liberal Democrats’ policy, in theory, is still to abolish tuition fees. But if you vote for them on that basis you are clearly insane and aren’t allowed to vote anyway.

You might as well vote for the recaptured prison absconder Skull Cracker, on the grounds that his policy is to soothe skulls and create an aura of calm and tranquillity.

It’s not the policies of the major parties that deter people; it’s their essence. Otherwise a website could say, “You said you’re opposed to the bombing of Iraq, wish to encourage film-making, and hope Katie Price is never again allowed on television. So in the European elections you should vote al-Qa’ida.”

The overwhelming sentiment of the age is “they’re all the bloody same”. That can’t be true, as for example two of them introduced the bedroom tax, and the other one wants to abolish it. And there can’t be many who’d say that “introducing, abolishing, scrapping, trebling – all these words mean the bloody same, bloody adjectives, sod the lot of them”.

There are exceptions. Tony Benn was hugely admired, including by those who disagreed with him. Similarly, few people would ever say, “Bloody politicians, scum the lot of them. Ed Balls, Nelson Mandela, Michael Gove, Desmond Tutu, Che Guevara, all the bloody same.”

Because it’s not so much the policies that create the distrust as the lack of conviction, soul and humanity. All the parties claim to admire Mandela, or the suffragettes or Martin Luther King, but they’d all have been instantly expelled from any modern party. Whereas I doubt the suffragettes ever had a meeting in which they said, “This policy of setting fire to a castle and wrecking the Derby, how do focus groups suggest it will play in key marginals in Leicestershire?”

This is why it’s unlikely there will ever be a legal battle over image rights because Tommy Hilfiger has marketed a series of T-shirts showing the face of a minister. Few will have a poster on their bedroom wall with a quote from another saying, “We must encourage business opportunities with countries I’m paid to promote”, and only a handful will have a tattoo of Danny Alexander on their arse.

Labour in particular is terrified of appearing extreme, but what’s extreme now can become moderate later on. At one point it was extreme to advocate votes for women or for black people in South Africa, just as it was once deemed moderate to defend the slave trade, or be photographed with Jimmy Savile. Labour’s other problem is whenever they get cross about something the Coalition is doing, they’re told “but you did it first”. So when it’s pointed out, for example, that they told the bankers to enrich themselves, they have to say something like “Ah, but we did it on a Wednesday. And in a nicer font.”

This may explain why so many are attracted to Ukip, because they look as if they mean it. So they’re forgiven when their councillors are caught making statements such as, “I believe spiders are Romanians that have been reincarnated”, or “Max Clifford was sent by God as punishment to humans for the Lisbon treaty.”

So maybe the answer is for Labour’s manifesto to just say, “Don’t blame immigrants and Europe and people on benefits for everything. They’re not the ones thieving billions in bonuses and doubling rents. Look, I know we screwed up last time but we all make knobs of ourselves.”

And when David Cameron makes one of those pathetic put-downs such as “Look at Labour, not so much an opposition as a flopposition”, to which all his minions giggle, Ed Miliband might do better to reply: “Do you want some? And furthermore, I know where you live.”

Maybe this is why I didn’t receive a reply when I applied to be Labour’s chief electoral strategist.