Our anti-politics culture could make this the most unpredictable election in a decade

A lot of former Labour voters want to give Tony Blair a huge kicking, but I get no sense they seek a change in government
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How much easier it is to be a religious leader compared with a political one. The eulogies for the Pope continue incessantly. Churches overflow with grieving followers. The rolling news channels mournfully broadcast never-ending coverage. For a few days, they struggled with reports of barely changing medical bulletins. Now the Pope has died, they can hardly contain themselves and as a bonus they have a royal wedding to report as well.

How much easier it is to be a religious leader compared with a political one. The eulogies for the Pope continue incessantly. Churches overflow with grieving followers. The rolling news channels mournfully broadcast never-ending coverage. For a few days, they struggled with reports of barely changing medical bulletins. Now the Pope has died, they can hardly contain themselves and as a bonus they have a royal wedding to report as well.

A wedding and a funeral: it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. It was the same with the Queen Mother's death. Once the Daily Mail had complained about the BBC's lack of respect, the schedules were cleared so a nation could mourn to excess.

Compare the tone of all this uncritical adulation with the tired cynicism with which some in the media and many voters will greet the announcement of the general election. These politicians are all the same! You can't trust any of them! You won't catch me voting!

Those who are relatively powerless are treated with great reverence not only in death, but also when they are alive. Unaccountable figureheads are elevated. Elected leaders function in an atmosphere of contemptuous indifference.

This is madness. It is greatly to the Pope's credit that he opposed the war against Iraq, but he could not stop the conflict from taking place. Nor did his opposition to contraception prevent Italy from being the country with one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. The Pope had influence and I do not doubt the sincerity of those who are currently grieving or those who are swept along by the overwhelming tide. But it is political leaders who are the ones with the power to put up or cut taxes, increase or reduce public spending, and indeed decide whether to go to war. The political leaders are the lying bastards who are not worthy of a vote while we deify the Pope, the Queen Mother and the winner of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

It is in this anti-politics culture that the most unpredictable election campaign for more than a decade gets under way. There is no precedent for the current negative political mood. As the poll in today's Independent suggests, a lot of former Labour voters want to give Tony Blair a huge kicking, but I get no sense that they seek a change of government.

The Conservatives proclaim policies that chime with the instincts of Middle England, but they are still debating the purpose of their party as the abolition of Howard Flight illustrated. The Liberal Democrats are also confused, but in their case the confusion is deliberate. They do not dare to state or decide whether they are a party on the left or right as they seek to maximise support from disillusioned Labour and Conservative supporters.

Optimistic Labour strategists hope that the nearest parallel to the current situation is the election in 1987 when Margaret Thatcher won for the third time with a landslide. Blair has been known to reflect that Thatcher was unloved and regarded by many as untrustworthy, not telling the truth about what happened in the Falklands War and in highly-charged internal battles such as the Westland affair. I sense that Blair withstands the personal attacks in the national media and from a significant section of the electorate by rationalising that this is what happens to long serving prime ministers.

But the parallel with Thatcher does not stand up. In 1987, she was idolised by a large section of her party and the media for her crusading radicalism. She had moved the country rightwards, and a grateful party and media awaited her inevitable re-election with ecstatic anticipation. In contrast, a significant section of Blair's party has concluded that he is a political leader on the centre-right and has failed to make the most of his landslide majorities. They fear his re-election on the grounds that he would regard victory as an endorsement for the war against Iraq and a mandate to introduce Thatcherite reforms to the public services.

On the first point, they are wrong. Whatever else Blair thinks about the war, he is fully aware of the impact on his reputation with progressive left of centre opinion. As the recipient of intimidating reports from focus groups, internal polling, and the newspapers, Blair remains neurotically in touch with public opinion. He is too in touch most of the time. In a third term, if the US wanted to invade Iran (highly unlikely) Blair would be in no position to join his presidential ally. He would not get such a move past his cabinet or parliament. As far as Iraq is concerned, Blair awaits the vindication of history, not the electorate. I doubt if history will deliver what he wants, but he knows already the verdict of liberal Britain.

On the reform of public services, the situation is more complicated. Already Blair has conceded ground. Last autumn, when Gordon Brown was cast into outer darkness, the Blairites planned to make this election a more sweepingly radical campaign about the need to bring the private sector into the public services. They have abandoned that idea and made the economy and investment in public services the key dividing line. Even so, after the election Blair is determined to unleash some radical changes, especially in education.

Several independent inquiries into his "five year" plans for public services have expressed alarm at the lack of forensic preparation as they were unveiled hastily last summer. During the 1987 election campaign, Mrs Thatcher's proposal to introduce a poll tax was subjected to no scrutiny at all. Blair's proposals for the public services, in particular the £5bn allocated for city academies, require further study over the next few weeks. But Blair's motives are commendable. He seeks to revive public services and prevent more middle-class taxpayers from heading for the private sector.

At last week's pre-election Cabinet meeting, Labour's public opinion guru, Philip Gould, told ministers that an unusually large number of voters would not make up their minds until the latter stages of the campaign. My anecdotal experiences suggest that this is the case. I continue to bump into people who are agonising over what to do. Quite a lot of them are tempted to treat the election as a by-election, to cast a protest vote against the Government on the assumption they will wake up on 6 May and Labour will still be in power.

If enough voters act in this way, there will not be a Labour government. Ministers therefore find themselves in the odd position of talking up the prospects of the Conservative Party in the hope of persuading Labour supporters to vote. Bizarrely, both Blair and Howard will be saying how well the Conservatives are doing.

Contrary to the perception of some voters, they do not agree on much else. Most fundamentally, they take different views on the role of the state and its size, a significant political divide. The death of the Pope has delayed the start of the official campaign until today, but serves to remind us how important the general election will be.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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