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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments