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Leading article: We must not dash the hopes of new voters

The last frantic hours of campaigning were more reminiscent of an American presidential race than a British general election, at least the sort of general election we have been used to. The leaders of the three main parties criss-crossed the country and pressed the flesh at a pace never seen before. Gordon Brown was up at dawn yesterday meeting market people in Leeds; Nick Clegg was on his way to Eastbourne, thence to Durham and on to Sheffield, while David Cameron rounded off an all-nighter – a first in British eve-of-poll politics – by meeting fishermen in Grimsby and being interviewed on breakfast television. Every minute mattered before an election where the opinion polls suggest that every vote will count.

The turnaround in the engagement of voters since the campaign began four weeks ago has been spectacular – and inspiring. The forecasts were all of public apathy and cynicism on the part of a population thoroughly turned off by politicians and politics. There were fears of a turn-out at least as low, if not lower, than the 61 per cent of 2005.

And disenchantment was most striking among the young. Only two months ago, the Electoral Commission reported that more than half of all eligible under 25 year-olds were not registered to vote. This had all the appearance of an election that would be decided by the older and supposedly more dutiful sections of the population. The young, it seemed, had essentially opted out, seeing nothing to be gained by taking part. The implications were dire, for the credibility of the next government, and the future of British politics.

Much of the credit for the transformation must go to television, and the televised debates in particular, which brought the contest alive in homes across the country. They are now established as an integral part of the electoral process. Britain embraced the genre later than most democratic countries, and only because – finally – the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition both agreed to take part. They also accepted the inclusion of the third party. That, arguably, marked the point at which this campaign, and British politics, changed.

The debates are not without their critics. Looks, confidence, and a telegenic manner will from now on be required qualities in a political leader; competence alone will not be enough if the politician cannot project it on the small screen. And although ours is a parliamentary system, in which we vote – currently – for one MP, the national party leader has taken on almost presidential significance. The leaders' television performances are bound to influence individual constituency votes. Those who have called this The X-Factor election are not completely wrong.

But so what? The appearance of the three party leaders on one platform, the fact that they were taking questions from ordinary voters, and the immediacy of the medium all improve the quality of our democracy and bring it up to date. Nick Clegg, in successfully presenting the Liberal Democrats as different from both "established parties", gave voters an alternative many had desperately sought. There followed a surge in the registration of new voters, especially voters under 25. Politics had at last found a language hitherto disaffected young people could understand.

Nor is this all: the closeness of the polls has increased the number of constituencies that are in play. So while more people, including young people, are registered to vote, more people's votes will also matter. This election has generated a national conversation. But if those young first-timers who have been galvanised to vote – by The X Factor, by "Cleggmania", or whatever – are to be convinced that their vote will count, not just now, but next time and the time after that, the system has to be reformed. Which is why this is not only a contest to savour, but also an opportunity to seize.