Dawn of the politics-free election

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The Independent Online
On Thursday afternoon, I took a break from canvassing in the European elections to look round a disused steel works in South Yorkshire. The interior was dark and cavernous, like a cathedral, but with hooks and pulleys still suspended from the ceiling. Giant pieces of machinery stood silent, under a settled layer of dust. The only sounds came from the far end of the building, where men in hard hats had begun converting it into a community project. Round the corner, in a suite of modern offices, a solitary visitor watched a video of a steel mill in action. It seemed to have as little connection with the present as South Yorkshire has, on the face of it, with Strasbourg or Brussels.

Of course, this is an illusion, even if on Thursday it seemed like a convincing one. We are all affected by decisions made in Brussels, and EU money makes a significant contribution to rejuvenating Britain's ravaged towns. Somehow, though, this message had not got across. The news from Labour's local campaign headquarters was discouraging, as canvass returns predicted a turnout in some wards as low as 15 per cent. "Have you voted today?" asked a young American college student, newly arrived from Michigan, as we stood in the town centre half an hour later, trying to encourage shoppers to the polls.

Some looked completely blank, as though the fact that an election was taking place was new and bewildering to them. Others scuttled away, as though she had inquired about an intimate aspect of their lives. "She wanted to know if I'd voted," I imagined them saying in hushed tones when they got home, as though it was the kind of question only an American would dare to ask. It seemed ironic that the student, who is on an attachment to the London office of the local Labour MP, was more enthusiastic about Europe than many of the people eligible to vote.

That evening, when we began knocking on doors in a final effort to get people out, there were encouraging moments. At one point, delighted by our ploy of handing out stickers and balloons, half-a-dozen Asian children escorted us along their street. In another, we were very nearly mobbed by older children on bikes who took turns to shout slogans through the megaphone carried by the local MP - clearly a boy thing, since almost all of them were male. But they were too young to vote, and many of their parents were out or not answering the door. Word filtered through that the dismal voting figures were being repeated up and down the country, prompting a debate about why the British are so uninterested in Europe.

Lingering xenophobia? A surfeit of elections? The latter explanation does not fit with the fact that Wales, which has recently had elections to the assembly, registered one of the highest turnouts. My theory, for what it is worth, is that it is a consequence of the Labour leadership's determination not to discuss Europe over the past two years, except in the most anodyne terms. The decision to avoid politics, imposed from above, left Labour candidates resembling advertisers in lonely hearts columns, desperately trying to make themselves sound interesting. (Woman, 30s, GSOH, enjoys long walks and playing the trumpet, seeks voter, age immaterial.)

Observing the mess the Tories have got themselves into on Europe, Labour's strategy seems to be to sit back and watch the Opposition tear itself apart. There has been no debate, only alarmist predictions about losing national sovereignty from the right and silence from Labour. What struck me as sad, as I returned to London, was the way in which the party's hard- working local activists had been left with so little to offer the electorate. Apart, that is, from cheesy photographs of their candidates posing with Tony Blair, like regional entrants in a bizarre beauty contest.

ARMCHAIR GENERALS, which is to say anyone who predicted in April that an air bombardment of Yugoslavia would not work on its own, have come in for a lot of stick. Mr Blair knew better than his critics, we are told, and we should be ashamed of ourselves. So let me recap for a moment: at the outset of the air war, Nato warplanes restricted themselves to attacking military targets. When this did not produce the desired effect, the list was enlarged to include most of the country's infrastructure. If I regret anything, it is only that I did not foresee that Nato would win the war - if it has been won, which is by no means certain - by terrorising the civilian population of Serbia.

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