There is something peculiarly inside-out and upside-down about this election campaign.
First, we had David Cameron inviting the voters to be part of his government; that is the conceit behind the Conservatives' manifesto. Then, ever since Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats burst into contention, we have been treated to an unseemly slanging match between the two major parties for the honour of badmouthing a hung parliament. Excuse me, but is this not the wrong way round?
The general election on 6 May is the one chance in five years that we, the people of this country, have to decide who will govern on our behalf. No one party and no one leader is yet in anything like a position to form a government, and won't be until after all the votes are counted. Our votes, let it not be forgotten.
There was a glimmer, just a glimmer, of recognition that this might be our election rather than theirs from, of all people, the Prime Minister. On Monday evening, evidently weary from the campaign trail, he said something about it being for the voters to decide. The trouble was, that from his exhausted look, this came across as a sigh of resignation – a sort of hand-wringing acknowledgement that there was no more he could do – rather than a statement of constitutional fact.
The unfortunate truth is that, unless you vote in one of the relatively small number of marginals, the campaign has been conducted at one remove. It is tantalisingly, frustratingly, out of reach. You can keep your television on all day and convince yourself that the party leaders are doing their selfless bit for multi-party democracy – as they undoubtedly are – flitting conscientiously from one stage-managed event to another, but after a while this succession of speeches and events becomes just so much animated wallpaper.
How much are these politicians really connecting? Their audiences are hand-picked, the venues security-swept and the reporters travelling with them have little option but to remain all day inside the same bubble. After all this, the politicians have the nerve to chide the voters with not being sufficiently engaged.
But that is not the worst of it. The worst is that, instead of courting us with promises – even promises that have only a glancing acquaintance with reality – the major parties have taken to threatening us instead. Only in the last few days, Labour has talked of the Tories levying a "toddler tax" and inflicting a "coalition of cuts for children". The Conservatives hold out the spectre of eternal "breakdown Britain" under Labour.
This is what used to be called "going negative" and was considered pretty bad form. There are American politicians who specialise in the art, and it worked a treat for George Bush against John McCain in the US Republican primaries of 2000. Remember the accusation that McCain would have excluded his own sister from cancer treatment? But this is not what took Bush to the presidency. What took him to the White House were the positives of his campaign – "No child left behind", "I'm a uniter not a divider" and his pledge to "restore honour and dignity to the White House" – along, of course, with an enormous war-chest, canny lawyers and a sympathetic Supreme Court. Similarly, it was positives that took Barack Obama to the presidency eight years later.
Mainstream parties tend to apply the frighteners only against discredited minority parties (the National Front in France and its counterparts elsewhere in Europe), or when they are running scared. Almost everywhere hope is preferred to fear. Last autumn in Germany, the main candidates held well-advertised public meetings across the country, often outdoors and with minimal security, and they rolled out their programme of promises to anyone who turned up. They set out to seduce the electorate, by offering them at least a little of what they might want.
You can call this demagogy, pandering to the voter, even electoral bribery. But it's all part of wooing the voting public, and here, in Britain in 2010, there seems to be less and less of it going on. Instead, the idea seems to be to browbeat us into not voting for the competition.
The most egregious example is the way the so-called "hung parliament" has become the stick with which Labour and the Conservatives are beating the third party, forecasting all manner of pestilence and plague for the country, should the election produce a Parliament without a majority for any one party. Yet before the issue really became live, after the first televised debate, polls showed more voters in favour of a hung parliament than for any single party. To condemn a hung parliament – an option that does not exist on the ballot paper – is to try to pre-empt and possibly flout the will of the voters. It is big-party arrogance of the first order.
Given their experience of majority government, is it not entirely reasonable for voters to see in a hung parliament not stalemate, but the prospect of cooperation, compromise, perhaps even a government of national unity? They might already have local experience of such a thing, if their council is in a state of "no overall control". Either way, they may not easily be persuaded that a hung parliament is a threat. And the more fiercely the two major parties try to persuade them otherwise, the more they may discern an attempt to protect interests that do not coincide with theirs.
Whatever the result of this election, the televised debates will have much to answer for. Two quite different forms of campaign are now in contention. On the one hand, there is the hyper-controlled electoral event as it has evolved over the past 20 years or so, in which the highest priority for the candidates is to be "on-message" and the voters are sifted for suitability as props. Everything is filtered. On the other, there is the debate, which requires the party leaders to make their pitch direct to the mass of voters, in direct competition with each other.
It was feared that the debates would be stifled by rules. In the event, they have helped the public turn the tables. Nick Clegg, borrowing from previous US presidential candidates, described the prospect as "a huge job interview in front of the whole nation". That is just what it ought to be, and it puts us finally, squarely, back in charge.Reuse content