Drop the hyperbole and fight a campaign on real issues that touch voters' lives

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The Independent Online

After the long and depressingly negative phoney war, the official campaign is underway. Party leaders and their campaign teams brim with renewed energy; fleetingly, there is a heady sense that all is to play for. In that positive spirit, let us hope the intense political debate of the next few weeks will focus on the issues that worry voters and touch their lives. We have had enough of grotesquely exaggerated claims about the threats posed by Gypsies, immigrants and asylum-seekers. The turn-out at the last election in 2001 was alarmingly low. There would be genuine cause for alarm if it were lower still on 5 May.

After the long and depressingly negative phoney war, the official campaign is underway. Party leaders and their campaign teams brim with renewed energy; fleetingly, there is a heady sense that all is to play for. In that positive spirit, let us hope the intense political debate of the next few weeks will focus on the issues that worry voters and touch their lives. We have had enough of grotesquely exaggerated claims about the threats posed by Gypsies, immigrants and asylum-seekers. The turn-out at the last election in 2001 was alarmingly low. There would be genuine cause for alarm if it were lower still on 5 May.

How to avoid such a bleak outcome? Voters will respond more positively to party leaders who, at the very least, are credible in their claims. Only a naive purist would call for complete candour at the start of a highly-charged campaign. But, at a time when trust in political leaders is low, they would be unwise to make absurdly hyperbolic statements about their own policies or those advanced by their opponents. Such meaningless battles, with incomprehensible statistics deployed as weapons, pass most voters by.

The pre-election campaign felt dated, as political leaders clashed over right-wing populist proposals from Michael Howard and exaggerated claims from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown about the scale of the difference between their parties' plans for public spending. Will any of the main parties dare to address, in detail, issues that are fundamental to the future of the country and its relations with the rest of the world? Over the next few weeks, The Independent will scrutinise policies relating to the environment and poverty in Britain and other parts of the world as much as the more familiar themes of crime, education, health and tax that dominate election campaigns.

An election is partly a verdict on the Government's record. Not surprisingly, Labour strategists are placing the economy at the centre of their campaign. With inflation low and employment high they have good reason to do so. The government has managed to invest in public services without destabilising the economy, although its claims that tax increases can be avoided once the election has passed are unconvincing. Labour can also point to the implementation of many progressive policies, from the introduction of SureStart to a substantial repayment of international debt.

Labour's pre-election campaign was defensive and negative, neurotically responding to the Conservatives' populism rather than highlighting Labour's achievements. On public services it has less to boast about. For all Mr Blair's claims about his desire for bold and radical reforms, the changes have been tame and, in the case of the NHS in particular, far too cautious. Both he and Mr Brown have always insisted that they would combine necessary increases in investment with reform. The reforms have been limited.

In truth, however, the general election is not only a referendum on the Government's record. It is a contest between the main political parties and their distinctive proposals for the future. In recent weeks, the Conservatives were thrown on to the defensive over whether or not they had hidden plans to cut public spending. The "Flight affair" has been a disaster for them, not least because of Mr Howard's ill-judged response.

But the "Flight affair" has also diverted attention from his party's published, undisputed proposals that will supposedly bring about improvements in public services, tax cuts and reductions in public spending. This is the same magical combination that William Hague offered voters in 2001. They were not impressed four years ago - and Mr Howard and Oliver Letwin have yet to explain convincingly how their sums add up this time. How is it that Labour would face a black hole after the election and so need to raise taxes, while the Conservatives would be in a position to cut them? The Liberal Democrats will also face intense scrutiny over their claims that a new top rate of income tax for high-earners will raise as much money as they claim. At least, though, they are not trying to please everyone at once.

Unusually, foreign policy will also be an important factor in this campaign. Extract the war against Iraq from the Government's second term and Labour would be headed confidently towards a big third-term victory. Voters face difficult decisions. Does Labour deserve to be punished because of the decisions taken by Mr Blair over the war against Iraq? Were his actions so immoral that he must be ousted, regardless of his government's policies in other fields? Or does his record in other areas qualify him to stay in office?

The Independent also hopes that Europe will not be kicked entirely into the long grass. Britain's future lies in Europe and political leaders should have the courage to say so in an election campaign - and not just hide pathetically behind the shield of the promised referendum on the constitution. It is absurd that Europe, such a contentious policy area, is never discussed at election time. The confused evasiveness on this issue was part of the reason why Mr Blair became trapped over Iraq: he did not know whether he was a European leader or the junior partner of the United States and tried to be both.

On all the big issues, and quite a few of the smaller ones, there are significant dividing lines between the parties. Those who dismiss them as "all the same" are palpably wrong. With polls suggesting that many voters have not yet made up their minds, this election looks set to be the closest since 1992. Much will be at stake on 5 May; how the campaign is fought could be decisive. We will be watching every move.

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