Leading Article: Election '97: Stuck in the '92 groove

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The Independent Online
Twenty-five days from now, the government is likely to change. The Labour Party will occupy offices that the Conservatives have held for a young voter's lifetime. Labour is likely to do so by a parliamentary landslide so sudden and large that its only precedent will be the election of 1945. And this margin of victory will be almost entirely due to Conservatives. Not to some new generation of voters, or some stirred-up socialist surge, but to millions of Margaret Thatcher's loyal supporters, to John Major's milder fans, to the whole supposedly unbreakable coalition constructed by the right since 1979. The sum of it is in the poll we publish today: one-fifth of those who voted Conservative in 1992 has switched straight to Labour.

From almost any perspective, this is a shock. The shrinkage of the unions, the swell of home ownership, the spread of a selfish consumerism - all of these have been reckoned, regularly, for two decades, to have locked the Conservatives in Downing Street. A whole library of conventional wisdom will have to be pulped after 1 May. Yet one group of people are barely stifling their yawns. To many journalists, it would appear, the campaign is merely an extended technical exercise in political tactics; the prospect of a Labour government is less dramatic then a potential split among the Conservatives; and the voting public, least considered of all, simply exists to be bored.

Part of the weariness weighing down coverage of the election is really embarrassment. All those past articles and broadcasts about Conservative impregnability - built on the approval of barely 40 per cent of the voting population - have now to be unwritten. More seriously, the media seems largely incapable of understanding, or dramatising, the sea-change in political opinion Britain is currently experiencing. Labour's poll lead has been large and long because the modern Conservative experiment, of rare scale and ambition, has steadily stalled. In today's trivialised terms, this is not a sexy story: editors have been staring at Tory decline since Black Wednesday, September 1992; if they are tired of it, they assume, so must be the public. Yet there is little evidence of this. In our survey, the proportion of people who say they are not at all interested in politics is lower than in 1995, than before the last election, or in 1973.

Regardless, reporters concentrate on sniffing out tiny tactical gaffes, as if the current campaign were of presentational importance only. The media, in fact, still seem to be fighting the 1992 campaign. On the surface, 1992 was more exciting, with its neck-and-neck polls, its row over Jennifer's Ear and its surprise result. But as a blueprint for how to cover 1997, the last election has been disastrous. John Smith's shadow budget, so criticised since for reckless honesty, has left politicians almost unable to discuss taxation in front of journalists. Yet, at the same time, it seems, this is all reporters want to ask about. The fate of the income- tax rate - so unimportant relative to voters' job prospects, the cost of mortgages, the rate of inflation - has to be predicted for half-decades to come. Last week, the Conservative and Labour manifestos did so, thus pretending that there was no prospect of unplanned changes in the economy, even with a recession close to overdue. The Liberal Democrats, bravely, tried to detail a little extra taxing and spending - and were promptly cut off by hostile questions. The news programmes might be twice their usual length, but they didn't have time for Mr Ashdown's explanations.

All this is damaging to British politics. If no brave plans can be suggested without scorn, and no landslides can occur without yawns, then the change the country clearly wants - a tentative return to a more collaborative society - becomes impossible.

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