People may no longer admit they will vote Labour, but vote they will

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The Independent Online

In spite of the fashionable complaints that politics is uninspiring, that idealistic voters are turned off, and that many disgusted Labour voters will stay at home, I think the turnout on 5 May will be higher than it was four years ago. The gloom about the failure of politics to provide voters with options they positively want has been overdone.

In spite of the fashionable complaints that politics is uninspiring, that idealistic voters are turned off, and that many disgusted Labour voters will stay at home, I think the turnout on 5 May will be higher than it was four years ago. The gloom about the failure of politics to provide voters with options they positively want has been overdone.

This prediction is based on the belief that short-term changes in turnout reflect the extent to which voters are unsure of the outcome. There may be deeper factors underlying the long-term decline in turnout, such as the erosion of civic responsibility and a better understanding that many seats are "safe", but the main reason why there was such a sharp drop in turnout in 2001, to a record low of 59 per cent, was that hardly anyone thought that Labour could lose. This was in sharp contrast to 1997 when, despite the overwhelming evidence of the opinion polls, there was widespread uncertainty about the result. That was because the polls had got it wrong in 1992, when Labour supporters felt the universe was conspiring against them. So, in 1997, turnout was a democratically respectable 71 per cent - even though it was lower than the 78 per cent recorded when John Major was elected five years earlier.

Now we are back under the cloud of unknowing. We are again at the mercy of opinion polls, without being sure if they are right. At the last election, the polls got the result almost as wrong as they did in 1992, but it was hardly noticed because Labour was so far ahead. If the opinion polls are as far off target now as they have been in the past three election campaigns, we are heading for a hung parliament in which the Conservatives would be the largest party.

I don't think the polls are that far out. I don't think they are still overstating Labour's share of the vote by 5 percentage points, because telling a pollster you will vote Labour is no longer the socially acceptable option. But I don't know for sure and nor does anyone else, least of all the nervous pollsters and politicians.

Which accounts for the dominant mood at the start of the election campaign, a tension that has had an opposite effect on the two main parties. Labour are paralysed by defensiveness, while the Conservatives are exhilarated by the sudden possibility that the outcome might be different from the one to which they had been resigned only a few weeks ago.

Hence the contrasting images of the past week: of Conservative MPs in the Commons gleefully waving their arms in the air, and of Patricia Hewitt announcing in sombre tones that she had taken the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union hostage in order to secure Labour's working-class stronghold.

Michael Howard's question to Labour MPs about their leader was one of those parliamentary moments when everyone in the chamber knows instantly that history is being made. "How many of them are putting his photo on their election addresses?" he asked. "Hands up." It was devastating and unanswerable, and a few confused Labour MPs fell into the trap by raising their hands. It crystallised a shift in the balance of power, just as Tony Blair's clinching put-down of John Major did 10 years ago, when Major foolishly tried to suggest that the parties were both divided over Europe: "There is a difference," replied Blair: "I lead my party, he follows his."

Then we had long faces over Longbridge, as the Government strained to manage the unexpected. This meant that Hewitt was in the curious position of a government minister announcing that a private-sector company had gone bust - with a trade union leader by her side to say that, yes, she had done all she could to avoid it. With Labour feeling that the election could slip away from them at any moment, there was a whiff of panic in the Government's overreaction. The first priority for New Labour in an emergency is to seize control of the media bridgeheads, so she had to announce the bad news with her spin on it rather than leave it to the company, even if so doing carried interventionist overtones. Gordon Brown set out the strategic thinking when he arrived with the Prime Minister the next day: "Tony Blair and I wanted to come here this afternoon to say we are on the side of the working people."

It is interesting that New Labour's free-market credentials are strong enough to allow the Government to show how much it cares, while leaving no doubt that it is no longer in the business of bailing out lame ducks. The collapse of Rover is unlikely therefore to have much impact on the election - not least because neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have an alternative policy.

But the Government's reaction to it betrays the openness of this election, and it is a rejoinder to those who think that there is something inexorable about the forward march of apathy. If the electorate thinks the outcome of the election is in doubt, more of them will take the trouble to vote.

They may do so in an unusually negative frame of mind, which, it could be argued, is hardly healthy for democracy. But that is part of a larger discussion that has so far been addressed most intelligently by Meg Russell in a Fabian pamphlet called "Must Politics Disappoint?" Disappoint! Politics seems to induce in a large proportion of my fellow citizens a state of intemperate, irrational rage. Last week, Richard Tarleton, a former Labour supporter, had a letter published in The Independent that declared: "I thought I'd never hate a politician as much as I hated Margaret Thatcher; I was wrong, I hate Blair more." Many such natural Labour voters will stay and home and seethe. But I think that the furious abstention factor will be outweighed by the pull to the polls exerted by a close race.

In her pamphlet, Russell spreads the blame for disappointment - and worse - between politicians, the media and voters themselves, but ultimately I was unconvinced by her proposals for changing the political "culture". The giveaway is when she writes of the benefits of "a better-educated electorate and communication methods to create a more engaged politics". I would guess that Richard Tarleton is a well-educated user of email and the internet. It may make more sense to accept that many people will always find politics disappointing or infuriating, and that the high expectations of the early Blair years was the aberration. But most voters will still want to take part in politics if they think they can influence the outcome.

There is, of course, one clinching reason why turnout will be higher this time, and that is the change in the rules to make postal voting so much easier, which is mostly a good thing. But I think it would have gone up anyway.

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