The 2005 general election has been, by a very great distance, the dullest in recent British history. It is far duller than 2001, and that was very dull indeed. It is so exceptionally dull that even the broadsheet newspapers — forget the tabloids — have become extremely reluctant to put political news on the front page. Instead they relegate it to the worthy sections far inside which virtually nobody reads. Broadcasters face an even more acute problem. Viewing for election coverage has fallen sharply. The Jonathan Dimbleby Programme, one of the strongest weekend political shows, normally attracts some 800–900,000 viewers. Its viewing audience collapsed to a pathetic 200,000 last Sunday.
Many ordinary voters have no awareness that an election is going on at all. Fewer posters are out than in previous elections, and door-to-door canvassing has ceased in certain areas. Even when it does take place it is sometimes fraudulent. This is what one London voter, Peter Martin, wrote in a most illuminating letter to the Independent: ‘The Labour parliamentary candidate for Tooting has a flyer on which are printed the words “Sorry you were out when I called round today.” I was at home when such a one was delivered to me. Indeed I watched a man put it through my letterbox, but he did not ring my doorbell. As well as not actually “calling” on me, this political postman was not the candidate, of whom there was no sign.’
Labour, and to an alarming extent the Tories too, have gone to extreme lengths to freeze voters out of their campaigns. A very good example is the Labour party rally I attended in the small Northamptonshire town of Rushden last Wednesday. This event was shown across the TV news regionally and nationally that day, and ordinary viewers might well have gathered the impression that here was the Prime Minister out on the stump, meeting the public and taking part in the democratic process.
But the reality was entirely different. The rally was kept secret till it actually started. The Labour party press office refused to tell me and other journalists where the event was taking place. This would not have mattered very much — would have been merely a matter of personal inconvenience — except that local people faced exactly the same predicament. There was never any chance that they could attend the Rushden rally — or, for that matter, the scores of similar events up and down the country. The audience pictured listening to the Prime Minister was not what it appeared. To a man and woman, they were Labour activists who had been secretly told where to attend at approximately 11 a.m. that morning, two hours before the event took place. Labour knows, from ugly experience at the last election, that ordinary voters can inflict great damage through artless questions or, sometimes, their genuine fury. Much better to keep them at bay.
It is true that this general election does still adhere to some of the old forms and conventions of British democracy. The parties produce manifestos, but these have become so bland that they are now almost meaningless. We still have the ballot box, though that has been tampered with to such an extent that it has lost its old integrity. The public meeting has decayed, and what voters see on TV is constructed around artifice and falsehood. Fundamentally, this is Britain’s first fully fledged post-democratic election, an idea I explore in greater detail in a television documentary, Why Politicians Can’t Tell the Truth, to be screened on Channel 4 next week.
The collapse of mass membership parties and the end of ideology mean that political leaders no longer reflect the aspirations of their activists. Instead they use focus groups to find out what voters want, a system which, as Professor Colin Crouch recently observed, ‘has all the advantages of discovering the public’s views without the latter being able to take control of the process for itself’. Once the experts report back from these focus groups, marketing techniques and computer technology of astounding complexity are brought into play to identify and target individual voters. The methods used are exactly the same as for a commercial organisation selling a product.
This method of engaging in politics produces a large number of malign effects. One of them is that, since the main parties target the same voters, they tend to say the same thing. On immigration, for all Tony Blair’s hypocritical claims that the Tories are fighting a ‘nasty’ campaign, Labour has copied the opposition. Meanwhile Michael Howard has timidly accepted Labour’s tax and spending plans.
This election is about fundamental agreement on substantive issues, poorly concealed by the manufacture of artificial differences. This is what has made the election so boring, and such a fraud on the voters. It has become a passionless, shameful, hole-in-the-corner affair about which all of us — political parties, the media, the nation as a whole — should feel thoroughly ashamed. There is no passion, no conviction, no belief; just clinical execution. So far only George Galloway of the Respect coalition has given the impression that he cares about politics, and he is a pariah from outside any of the main three parties.
This apathy suits Labour, which will receive its purely negative endorsement from the British people on 5 May. But it is unfair to be too hard on Michael Howard for his collaboration in a general election that has turned into a giant conspiracy against the British people. He had no choice when he took over the Conservative party 17 months ago. There were too few resources in terms of personnel, intellectual capital and — above all — time. The party was facing disaster at the polls and the best he could do was impose discipline and hone a narrow message. Michael Howard is fighting a hard, lonely, admirable battle with practically no support from colleagues.
Beyond 5 May, the Tory party needs to make the case for what it believes. There is a long intellectual battle to be fought, and great arguments to be had about the nature of the state, about the future of public services, and about British identity. None of those arguments is being heard in this general election because British politicians are ashamed to make them. If the Tories could learn to campaign with passion, they might not just save themselves; they could even save British democracy.
Peter Oborne’s film Why Politicians Can’t Tell the Truth will be shown on Channel 4 at 8 p.m. on Monday 25 April.