General Election 2015: The serious business has begun

Despite fears about the superficiality of election campaigns, this one has been dominated by policy issues

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The Independent Online

One thing we have learned in the election campaign so far is that Ed Miliband should be taken seriously as a possible prime minister. The Conservative game plan seemed to be that, the more the voters got to know Mr Miliband, the less they would trust him. That is not how things have worked out in the Labour leader’s media appearances.

Under ordeal by Paxman and in the seven-way leaders’ debate, he held his own. Last week Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, suggested that the country would not be safe with Mr Miliband because he “stabbed his brother in the back”, which prompted a rather sharp backlash in public opinion. It was almost as if the Conservative Party had forgotten that people consistently tell opinion pollsters that they dislike personal attacks. Then the Conservative press tried to suggest that there was something not quite right about his “jolly tangled love life”, but succeeded only in portraying him as a reassuringly normal person.

In his interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Miliband seemed almost relieved by the onslaught on him. If that is the worst they can do, he implied, he could live with it. He seemed unburdened, comfortable with the challenge ahead and content to allow the British people to judge him as he really is: “This is the real me, not the caricature.”

Even his enemies concede that the Labour leader has shown resilience in his five years in one of the most testing posts in British politics. Professor Tim Bale’s book, Five Year Mission, paints a subtler picture of him than the hostile media image, of someone who has skilfully kept his party together while demonstrating the kind of flexible toughness that is needed in modern politics.

All of this should free the voter to consider the policies on offer from the parties. In fact, despite the common fears about the superficiality of election campaigns, this one has so far been refreshingly dominated by serious policy questions. Last week started with an important speech from Tony Blair on the merits – or, rather, demerits – of a referendum on our membership of the European Union. Then Labour made an impression by pledging to abolish non-dom status – an unjustifiable, partly hereditary tax perk. In addition to Conservative proposals to encourage volunteering and to cap rail fares, the week ended with a discussion about the party’s unfunded promise to increase spending on the NHS by £8bn a year.

Not only that, but the tone of the debate, with one or two exceptions, has been reasonably respectful and measured. Last week’s “women leaders” debate between Nicky Morgan (Conservative), Harriet Harman (Labour), Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dem) and Diane James (Ukip) steered away from personal attacks while giving us robust policy exchanges. The Scottish leaders’ debate between Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Jim Murphy (Labour), Ruth Davidson (Conservative) and Willie Rennie (Lib Dem) was vigorous and closely fought, and it was interesting to see Ms Sturgeon forced on to the defensive at last when challenged on policy specifics.

It is almost as if we were able to get all the nonsense about the leaders’ kitchens, spouses and eating styles out of the way in advance of the serious stuff. This week, we move on to the next stage of the policy contest with the publication of the parties’ manifestos.

The Independent on Sunday is not going to advise you, the reader, how to vote, but we hope that people will decide how to cast their votes on the basis of policies and character rather than insults, cheap shots and scare-mongering. Our view is that Mr Miliband has established the right to be considered Mr Cameron’s equal and that people should vote for the set of policies that they believe would be best for the country.

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