Scare tactics and shallow causes

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The Independent Online

It is never edifying to see politicians trying to scare people into voting for them. But that is precisely what is going on at the moment, as this election campaign moves into its final stages. Both Labour and the Tories are talking less about what they would do if elected, and more about the supposed dangers presented by the other side. Labour's campaign slogan has changed from "Forward, not back" to "If you value it, vote for it". And the Tory message is no longer, "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" but the brazen: "Send Mr Blair a message".

It is never edifying to see politicians trying to scare people into voting for them. But that is precisely what is going on at the moment, as this election campaign moves into its final stages. Both Labour and the Tories are talking less about what they would do if elected, and more about the supposed dangers presented by the other side. Labour's campaign slogan has changed from "Forward, not back" to "If you value it, vote for it". And the Tory message is no longer, "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" but the brazen: "Send Mr Blair a message".

Clearly, the intention of both Tony Blair and Michael Howard is to shore up their core votes. The Prime Minister's determination to frighten disenchanted voters back into the fold came in the wake of the veteran Labour MP Brian Sedgemore's defection to the Liberal Democrats. Mr Blair accused the Tories of deliberately playing down their chances of victory so Labour voters would not bother to turn out on polling day. By cultivating the impression that Labour is "home and dry", the Tories are supposedly hoping that more people will feel free to take up Mr Sedgemore's exhortation to give Mr Blair "a bloody nose". The Prime Minister's response was crude: this could allow in a Tory government by the back door.

To back this up, he cited the fate of the Australian Labor party in 1996. The centre-left government there appeared to be cruising to re-election and there was a general mood of complacency among its supporters. But the right-wing Liberal party ended up winning a shock victory. The fact that Lynton Crosby - the mastermind behind that victory - is now the Tory campaign chief is, we are led to believe, reason for extra caution.

This argument is superficially plausible. But opinion polls show that Labour is well ahead of the Tories and maintains a steady lead over the Liberal Democrats. It would require an enormous swing in electoral support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats to make Mr Blair's scenario even remotely possible - and there is simply no sign of this happening.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Labour's scare tactics betray the shallowness of its cause. It is quite likely that Mr Howard's rather nasty focus on asylum and immigration will ensure that many Labour waverers remain loyal when confronted by the ballot box. But it reflects badly on Mr Blair and his government that the best reason they can offer to vote for them is to ensure that the Tories are kept out of office once again. This is a demeaning and negative approach. A government seeking a mandate for a historic third term ought to have a more substantial case to make for its re-election.

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