An election campaign this tight may rouse British democracy. Voting reform would spur a revival


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The Independent Online

Yesterday saw the last of the pre-election Prime Minister’s Questions. Tonight David Cameron and Ed Miliband will appear in front of live television audiences. Very soon, the parties will launch their campaigns.

 The 2015 general election has begun, six weeks before polling day. It is going to be a long haul. Will it do anything to restore the public’s battered trust in politics?

There are some good signs. Yesterday’s weekly joust between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband turned into more than the usual meaningless exchange of hot air. Out of it came a promise from Mr Cameron that if he is returned to Downing Street, there will be no increase in VAT, matched later by a promise from Ed Balls that a Labour government would not put up National Insurance. These are real gains for the taxpayer, while potentially very expensive for the Treasury.

If this carries on, we can look forward to a campaign in which the political leaders are making genuine promises. Even if they are only promises of what they will not do rather than what they will do, that will be an improvement on the airy soundbites that tend to fill the airwaves at election time.

One reason why there may be more real substance than usual to this campaign is that it is a genuine cliffhanger. Even old stagers who remember every contest since 1974, the year of two general elections, or even 1964, when Labour scraped to victory, say that they have never known an election with an outcome as hard to predict as this year’s.

This is a change from the general elections of 2001 and 2005, when everyone knew from the outset that Labour would be returned to government, the campaigns were a formality and the turnout was low. In 2010, it was not difficult to predict that the Labour government’s time was up and Mr Cameron would emerge as Prime Minister. The experience of the Scottish referendum tells us that when a real question is put to the voters, and the answer is uncertain, and every vote counts, our aged democratic system suddenly takes on a new life.

Except, unfortunately, the coming contest is not like the Scottish referendum. Under Parliament’s first-past-the-post system, it cannot be said that every vote counts. There will be many more seats than usual in this election that are genuinely in contention, particularly in Scotland, but they are still a minority.

Even if we say that there are 200 constituencies where the incumbent party might be in danger of losing – and that would be a very high estimate – that still leaves 450 where the winner’s name is known, in effect, before the count even begins. Even in this extraordinary election, two-thirds of the candidates and their local parties are only going through the motions, and the voters have no strong incentive to go to the polls. That problem could only be solved by changing the voting system, something the electorate decisively rejected when one particular type of electoral reform was put to a referendum in 2011.

There is not, it must be said, any sense of excitement hanging over this contest. In 1997, many people really believed that change was in the air. Not many people believe that now, so whoever is prime minister after May will not come in with the exaggerated expectations of 18 years ago. Despite these reservations, this election may yet turn into a genuine clash of ideas and ideologies that will bring home the truth that politics is important and voting matters. Let us hope so.