John Curtice: You may be bored, but we need all this madness

For four endless weeks, politicians rudely disturb the routine of our night's viewing on the sofa

Share

It seems to be nothing but madness. Party leaders zig-zag across the country in helicopters with barely time to say hello to anyone before they are off in the air again. They give lengthy press conferences before anyone has had time to have breakfast. Meanwhile, for four endless weeks the fruits of their daily labours rudely disturb the regular routine of our night's viewing on the sofa. Can any of this really persuade us how to vote? Do we not already know who will win on 5 May, anyway?

It seems to be nothing but madness. Party leaders zig-zag across the country in helicopters with barely time to say hello to anyone before they are off in the air again. They give lengthy press conferences before anyone has had time to have breakfast. Meanwhile, for four endless weeks the fruits of their daily labours rudely disturb the regular routine of our night's viewing on the sofa. Can any of this really persuade us how to vote? Do we not already know who will win on 5 May, anyway?

Mad and disruptive they might be, but in truth we need our election campaigns. We do not all of us know how we are going to vote, and the decisions we make over the next three weeks could yet make a difference to the political direction of the country.

Even in the 1950s, when every voter was supposedly either determinedly Labour or staunchly Conservative, election campaigns still made a difference. At that time some of the first research ever to be conducted into just how we vote found that no less than one in four either changed or made up their minds during an election campaign. In much the same way, just this week at least one in 10 have been admitting to the pollsters they do not know how they are going to vote, while even among those who think they do know how they will vote around one in three say they might still change their minds.

Moreover, this campaign churning is often crucial to the fortunes of one of our political parties: the Liberal Democrats. In most post-war election campaigns support for the country's third force has ended up being higher on polling day than it was at the outset of the campaign. In 1997, for example, the Liberal Democrat vote increased by 3 points, while last time around in 2001 it increased by no less than 5 points.

There is probably one simple reason why election campaigns matter so much to the Liberal Democrats: it is pretty much the only time that anybody gets to hear anything about them. Outside elections they have to compete for airtime, and often get squeezed out. But during election campaigns the broadcasters have to give them a guaranteed amount of coverage, even if what they have to say does not appear to be newsworthy at all.

Of course not all publicity is good publicity, as Charles Kennedy learnt to his cost this week when his sleep-deprived brain got into a muddle about local income tax. In 1987, when the former Liberal/SDP Alliance was being jointly led by David Steel and David Owen, the media often used the Alliance's airtime to report on how the two Davids appeared to have two rather different campaign messages. But usually the greater attention they receive at campaign time seems to do the Liberal Democrats good.

Britain's two largest parties cannot afford to relax either - if only to ensure that they do not lose more ground to the Liberal Democrats than do their principal opponents. After all, Labour's average poll ratings fell by 5 points in each of the last two election campaigns, something the party can ill afford to let happen this time around. Occasionally, if only very occasionally, movements during the election campaign can even actually make a difference to who wins. Mr Heath's unexpected victory over Mr Wilson in 1970 is the most famous example.

In any event, election campaigns are not just about who wins and who loses. They also serve other vital roles. For a start, they create a kind of informal contract between the Government and the governed. The victors are expected to keep the promises they have made in their campaign, and woe betide the party that is felt not to have done so - as Labour has found to its cost over both its decision to introduce top-up fees and its 1p hike in national insurance.

Election campaigns are also a kind of job interview. Prospective prime ministers have to be able to defend their plans against the scrutiny of both the press and their opponents. If they do not look up to the job, on polling day they are served with a rejection letter.

Meanwhile, for all our complaints about just how boring and uninteresting election campaigns are, in practice they actually make us feel better about how we are governed. Once it is all over we are always more inclined than we were beforehand to say that politicians can be trusted to put the country's interests above the interests of their own party. Perhaps we feel their hearts must be in the right place after all if they are willing to spend four incessant weeks engaged in such tireless and tiresome activity. Why else would they possibly bother?

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobThe successful ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: Joe on Vlad, the banks of the Jordan and Blair's radicalism

John Rentoul
 

Believe me, I said, there’s nothing rural about this urban borough’s attempt at a country fair

John Walsh
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor