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Adrian Hamilton: People vote for competence not policy

In a peculiarly British way, the result usually reflects the consensus in the country

Yes, yes. Of course the election is supposed to be about policies and not personalities, and the main parties should be detailing just what precise cuts they are planning to make to public expenditure, and just what they mean by "family" and "society", and what is the "clear water" between them on a host of issues from defence to education.

But in reality, as we all know, the British public makes its mind up not on policies, nor even necessarily on self-interest, but on their judgement of which side appears the better able to manage the country.

There are occasions when the voters put a decisive mark on change and reform. The end-of-war vote of 1945 remains the most obvious and dramatic example. But they are few and far between. Most people finally decide – other than through a diminishing party loyalty – on whether one lot looks tired, whether another team should be given a chance or whether the voters can't quite make up their mind.

It may not seem very ennobling. It may mean more often than not the public votes against one party rather than for another. It certainly has not produced the results that many of us might have wanted in any particular election. But, in a peculiarly British way, it more often than not leads to a result that reflects the broad consensus in the country.

In 1945, people wanted change. By 1950 the Labour government had exhausted itself with reform and, if the electorate were still unconvinced by Churchill's leadership of the Tories (as they had every reason to be), they weren't quite ready to throw out Labour. The result was the slimmest continuing majority for Clement Attlee before a new election 18 months later brought back Winston Churchill and the Tories with a only a marginally more comfortable majority of 17.

By 1964, after 13 years of Tory rule, the public were equally – albeit still uncertainly – ready to give Harold Wilson and Labour a chance again, but only confirmed that decision on the experience of a year and a half in the election of 1966. When Wilson returned to the hustings in 1970 it was with a Cabinet so divided and a programme so shaken by the failure of union reform that Edward Heath seemed the essence of a firmer and better economic team.

And when he dithered over the election timing and went to the country on a platform of "Who Runs Britain" in February 1974, it was with a strangely uncertain note, although not so uncertain as to give Harold Wilson a majority in the Commons. Even when Wilson went back to the voters that Autumn, he still gained a majority of no more than three.

How much actual support Mrs Thatcher had for her policies when she was returned first in 1979 was debatable. But the desire to turf out Labour as no longer fit for rule after the "Winter of Discontent" was palpable, just as the sentiments turned the other way for Tony Blair's election in 1997, after the national humiliation of Black Wednesday and our exit from the ERM.

The lot of the Liberal Democrats in this has always been, and may still be, as the beneficiaries or otherwise of stronger passions about the main parties. Despite the occasional surges of popularity accompanying a particular leader, they have profited from the rejection of other parties rather than enthusiasm for their particular policies.

In that sense, it is wrong to talk about the British voting for a hung parliament. They don't. Nor do they have the mechanism for doing so in the first-past-the-post system even if they wanted to. What they can, and do, is vote against the ruling party while witholding their support for the main opposition party that only a very narrow majority – or even not one at all – emerges, as it did in 1964 and then a decade later.

It is always a mistake trying to draw historical parallels, especially when it comes to elections. But, if anything, it would seem that we are in a 1964 situation. The public has decided that New Labour's day is done. And they are right.

As with the Tories at the end of the prime ministership of Sir Alec Douglas Home, there is the sense of an administration past its sell-by date. The Cabinet is no longer a team. The party has the air of defeat. And the Prime Minister, despite a dogged refusal to lie down, has all the air of a man promoted above his level of competence.

The more he feels it necessary to speak on everything, from talent shows to Afghan deaths, the lesser the man he appears. He can claim to understand finance, although not excuse his part in its downfall. But he can't quite rise to being a premier.

Yet the more the voter has turned his or her attention to the opposition, the less impressed they have seemed to be. This is not a matter of fleshing out policy, as some would have it. If anything David Cameron is over-active in producing new policies, from teenage pregnancies to marriage vows.

But it is a question of straight competence. The more he talks of budgetary discipline the less he, or his Shadow Chancellor, seems to have a command of the policies he intends to pursue to bring the deficit down. It's not a matter of detailed proposals, but a sense of "grip" in intention.

Yet there is no real sign that the public is ready to move enthusiastically to a third party. This is not so much the fault of the Lib Dem approach, which has tried to make itself eminently reasonable and electable, so much as the fact that the protest vote is going to the BNP, UKIP, the Greens and the so-called "fringe parties" (although none would accept that moniker) and even more, perhaps, to those who won't vote at all.

This certainly makes the psephologist's task more difficult. But it also makes this election infinitely more depressing. Here we are at a moment which, in economic terms at least, is the most important in nearly 80 years and we have an electorate that has lost faith with the Government, doesn't have confidence in the main opposition party and is likely to vote in protest for the fringes if they are going to vote at all.

In 1964 and again in 1974, we were at least talking about the real possibilities of change, whatever the doubts about the individual parties. Now we view only the possibilities of struggling on, one way or the other.