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Adrian Hamilton: Policy and elections just don't mix

After a succession of massive majorities, we've forgotten what tight elections are like

There used to be a time when the British prided themselves on the brevity of their election campaigns, pointing disparagingly at the Americans for whom mid-term votes dominate a second year of a president's period in office and the presidentials dominate the last year. Of course it was always a myth that the British kept to a three-week campaign. For those who remember, the 1970s was almost continuously dominated by the prospect of an election, made worse by the fact that, unlike the US and most other countries, the prime minister could pick a time of his own choosing. Would he go early, would he leave it to the last minute, would he time it with the latest economic statistics if they were good or pre-empt them if they were likely to be bad?

A couple of decades – a whole generation indeed – of large Commons majorities and foregone election results (with the exception of 1992) have made most let most people forget, if they ever knew, just what it is like to live with an election ever round the corner. Each initiative and every political speech is directed at discrediting the opposition and ennobling yourself for the moment when the voters decide.

The one different thing this time round is the way that discourse is conducted. Through the 1970s and the decades after, the attack of an opposition and the counter-attack by the government was concentrated on the question of competence, hence an almost obsessive search for bad news, particularly on the economic front.

That concentration on competence still goes on, as the ding-dong this week over the scale of the indebtedness and the urgency of action to rectify it has shown. But Tony Blair, who worked so hard to give new Labour the aura of competence, also added another element to the political discourse which worked well for him but has proved far more damaging to sensible discussion of policy than the Punch and Judy exchanges of yesteryear. That is the advertising industry belief in branding by association.

It was an Amerrican import, the product of focus groups and the professionalisation of politics but what it has meant is that the parties now attempt to create an image around themselves that feels good to the voter and also pushes out the competitor from that space. Policy doesn't matter. Personality is less important. What is of concern is the nebulous business of association, the creation of narratives.

You could see it all on full display in this week's Autumn statement. It was not just that Alistair Darling tried to label himself with the image of growth and concern, it was that by picking on particular points such as bankers' bonuses and inheritance tax he hoped to suck the other side into opposing them and thus associating themselves with being against growth, prudence, bankers' excesses and so on.

It is an extremely tedious form of politics for the outside onlooker (oppositions have become wise enough by now to avoid the traps). It is also the enemy of any productive debate about policy and its alternatives. Bankers' bonuses are a case in point. The appeal of bashing bankers to a politician facing re-election is obvious. But aside from the satisfaction of being part of a crowd, the question of what you do about bonuses is a serious one.

Is it just the bankers that you are concerned with, or the whole mushrooming of bonuses as a means of additional pay, particularly in the public sector? Are you aiming to stop bonuses that encourage gambling (in which case how do you define them) or do you want to stop banks paying excessive amounts to their employees altogether? And is the aim to stop banks paying bonuses, in which case it won't raise much revenue, or is it a way to increase state income?

The result in practical policy terms was yesterday's piece of gesture politics. But because it is a gesture – just as in ordinary life when one comes under attack – the City looks not to the measures themselves but the spirit in which they are being pursued. And that opens up a much bigger issue of whether Britain wants a major international financial centre based here at all or whether it would be much happier to retreat to a domestic-based and limited operation (which I suspect is what most people and probably the majority of MPs would be happier with).

The problem of politics by association gets worse when you come to really serious questions such as the Afghan war. The Leader of the Opposition was off to Kabul last week, with the BBC in tow, and Gordon Brown will be jetting there this weekend, presumably also with the BBC in tow, to wrap themselves in the patriotic flag of support for our troops. Neither wants to give the other room to seize the high ground, while the Liberal Democrats are too nervous to criticise them.

And the result? Seven years after the decision was made to send troops into Iraq, we are upping our stakes in Afghanistan against a background of equal public doubt. Yet, once again, we are doing it without any discussion in Parliament of the rightness of the decision or, just as important, what might be the alternatives. Even the Falklands induced a more open debate than that.

My chief fear at the moment is that Copenhagen is going to go the same way, not in the discussion of the science (on which the scientific consensus is pretty clear by now) but in its implications. Environmentalism has become a label which every political leader wants to associate him or herself with. More than that they want to keep escalating their virtue by raising the targets the better to leave their opponents lagging behind.

That may work in the international gabble-gabble arena but it doesn't work when it comes to producing, and debating, the measures to meet those targets back home, where the opinion polls suggest that half the public doesn't even believe in the science never mind the pain of adjustment.

The public have a point. Their political leaders haven't even begun to get their minds round the questions of carbon capping and carbon trading, air travel and motoring, nuclear waste, wind power and the environment, let alone the even more contentious questions of suppressing demand and/or going for engineering solutions.

But then they don't need to. So long as it is just a question of virtue by association, you don't have to think through anything at all.