There may be a shining silver lining to this dull, uninspiring campaign

Click to follow
The Independent Online

And so it is over, and, many will say, not a moment too soon after a campaign that seems to have dragged on for months.

And so it is over, and, many will say, not a moment too soon after a campaign that seems to have dragged on for months. Today all that matters for the parties is to get out the vote. This year, however, the task promises to be uncommonly hard, and if the experts are right, turnout at a general election will fall below 70 per cent for the first time since the Second World War.

Winston Churchill was right when he said no one pretends democracy is perfect, but it is precious and, looking around the world, there too many examples of people being killed and imprisoned in their fight for the basic human right of participating in the choice of government. But declining turnout is not necessarily a disaster. Elections are when the people speak; if they choose to stay silent, this could simply be that they are content with their lot. Alternatively, as may be the case in some Labour heartland seats, the silence could indicate surly discontent.

As in most mature democracies, the battleground of politics is an ever more crowded centre. There are major differences between the parties, as this election has shown, but most issues are shades of grey. There are no great clashes of ideology, just choices between different ways to manage a relatively prosperous country. The biggest decision facing our nation ­ whether to cross the Rubicon of the age and join the European single currency ­ will be resolved not in today's vote but in a referendum a year or two hence. Finally, the election result is widely assumed to be a foregone conclusion; rubber-stamping the inevitable is not a clarion call to the voting booth.

That said, however, there is no denying the trivialisation, and thus the inevitable marginalisation, of politics. Peaceful times are not an unmitigated blessing. Football matches may have replaced wars as outlets for nationalism; but, by the same token, substance is all too easily drowned in a celebrity culture's tide. For too many people, the results of the votes on Big Brother are more important than today's poll.

The party machines have made matters worse by their crafting of vacuous soundbites, their obsession with choreographed blandness and their terror of the spontaneous. Spontaneity, however, is the lifeblood of politics ­ which is why the abiding memory of the past month will not be a policy proposal, but that thumping Prescott punch.

In fact, on the occasions they have engaged more conventionally with voters, the leaders of the three main parties have performed well. All the more regrettable, therefore, that Tony Blair refused the challenge to go head-to-head on television. Debates might not have altered the underlying dynamic of the campaign, but they would have provided a jolt of raw political electricity, encouraging more people to vote.

In the event, "dreary" is likely to be history's adjective for campaign 2001. If the predictions are right ­ of a huge Labour majority achieved on one of the smallest turnouts on record ­ there will be much talk of a "democratic deficit", about how unhealthy it is that a party should be able to steamroller legislation through a captive parliament, even though it was supported only by a third or fewer of the electorate. But the fault is not with a Prime Minister who merely uses the tools the system gives him. It lies with those who do not vote and, above all, with a voting system that prizes strong government above truly representative government.

In this sense, at least, a mostly uninspiring campaign has a shining silver lining. By underlining the flaws in the first-past-the-post system and the need to make people feel that their vote counts, it has made the case for proportional representation more powerful than ever.

Comments