A campaign that has yet to capture the public imagination

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The Independent Online

The first week in this election campaign has been less than inspiring. There has been the whiff of predictability in the air, and none of the big three parties - or their respective leaders - could be said to have captured the public's imagination.

The first week in this election campaign has been less than inspiring. There has been the whiff of predictability in the air, and none of the big three parties - or their respective leaders - could be said to have captured the public's imagination.

Of the three major parties, Labour has had the best week. The party appears to be gradually pulling away from the Tories in the opinion polls. And it is not just the faltering nature of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat campaigns that is responsible for the upturn in Labour's fortunes; the party underlined its credentials as the party of government with its slick and authoritative manifesto launch.

A crucial factor behind Labour's recovery has been Tony Blair's recognition that he is an electoral liability. Out on the campaign trail, he has gone out of his way to be seen and photographed alongside Gordon Brown. Mr Blair calculates that he will receive a more sympathetic hearing - both from the public and the media - if accompanied by his widely respected Chancellor, while it also focuses attention on the Government's sound handling of the economy. The antipathy between the two men is as intense as ever, but they accept that it is in both their interests for Labour to win as large a majority as possible. By reaching an accommodation - however temporarily - they are showing discipline and desire for power, which is something electorates pick up on - and reward.

But it has to be noted that the policy initiatives unveiled in Labour's manifesto were under-whelming - particularly in relation to Europe and the environment - and did nothing to dispel the general sense of drift that hangs over this Government. There was little sign of genuine vision or renewed vigour to excite the electorate.

They are fortunate, however, that a Tory campaign that started so strongly has seemed to run out of steam. Michael Howard was knocked off course by his disastrous handling of the Howard Flight affair, which led to rather uncertain defence of the party's spending plans. Mr Howard has demonstrated impressive stamina, but jibes that his party is a one-man band are beginning to hit home. Some of the most senior figures in the Shadow Cabinet - Oliver Letwin and David Davis - have been almost invisible, while telegenic young pretenders such as George Osborne and David Cameron, for all their smoothness and competence, do not yet appear sufficiently experienced to take up the reins of government.

The Liberal Democrats have picked up in the polls since campaigning began but remain in danger of missing a unique opportunity. Charles Kennedy's affability is an asset for the party - and the fact that he has a new baby son to take out on the campaign trail will certainly do no harm. But his confusion when questioned on the party's local income tax proposals at the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto this week was inexcusable and will, sadly, reinforce doubts in the minds of some voters about just how serious a politician Mr Kennedy really is. Such perceptions are underscored when the likes of Menzies Campbell and Vincent Cable are performing so well. Mr Kennedy has much to play for if he is to convert courageous leadership of his party into substantial electoral gain.

The first week of campaigning has confirmed that the election is Labour's to lose. If they are to stand any chance of loosening Mr Blair's hold on power when the nation goes to the polls on 5 May, the opposition parties need to raise their game considerably.

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