Be more positive if you want our votes

Published by The Independent (27th April, 2015)

With a general election looming, it seemed a good time to see a political play. So on Friday night I went to watch Dead Sheep, a clever and surprisingly poignant comedy about the last days of Margaret Thatcher centred around her relationship with Sir Geoffrey Howe. Behind the stage was a monstrously blown-up picture of her all-male cabinet, prompting audience members to point out ministers they could still remember; afterwards, I heard comments about how small today’s politicians seem by comparison.

Perhaps people always say this. Yet part of the play was set in 1983, just after the first election in which I could vote. I recall going to see leading politicians speak at hustings, often rumbustious events given the sharp clash of ideology and strong feelings provoked by Howe’s tough economic stance. I marvelled at Michael Foot’s oratory, was accosted by Thatcher and still wince at the memory of Norman Tebbit crushing a teenager brave enough to question his politics. Such was the lack of security, I had even strolled straight into the launch of the Social Democrat Party two years earlier.

What a contrast with this election campaign. Our current crop of timorous politicians are sealed off from their voters, performing at dreary, stage-managed events  before carefully-filtered audiences rather than risking any challenging confrontations with disgruntled citizens. Gillian Duffy has a lot to answer for after upsetting Gordon Brown. Meanwhile press conferences are cancelled, the media roped off at events, and journalists from unsympathetic newspapers kept at bay.

And this is the time politicians reach out to the people and seek to persuade them that they offer the finest policies and vision for the nation’s future. No wonder there is widespread dismay with Westminster and dwindling engagement as parties seek to keep the campaign in a stranglehold and dodge key concerns in an age of consumer choice and transparency. At least traditional news outlets have been strengthened by the arrival of social media and fact-checking websites.

Yet both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are strong performers on the stump and likeable people in private, while those politicians who dare to mix it up with voters can be ones who emerge with popularity and respect This is a key component of the Boris Johnson bandwagon that is also visible, with insurgents such as Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage – although it is easier if not restrained by the straight-jacket of traditional party politics.

Has there ever been such a dismal election campaign, both in terms of tactics and messages? Certainly not in the seven contests of my adult lifetime. Two fearful main parties are fighting defensive campaigns as they struggle to shore up core votes in desperate hope of emerging as largest party in a hung parliament. Labour exploits the deaths of migrants to accuse David Cameron of failing to rebuild Libya, insisting that a looming calamity was obvious despite staying silent on the matter until less than two weeks before voting day. The Tories simply rely on the fear factor, first over Miliband’s competence and then over the impact of Sturgeon’s revolution in Scotland.

For all the internal fissures and questions over the blue-sky campaign, at least the Tories offered some original ideas and a dash of optimism in place of Gordon’s gloom last time round. Yet serving as Cameron’s speechwriter, I saw how hard it is for party apparatchiks to break out of the bubble and see politics like the public do instead of as an all-consuming fight. Under constant bombardment from media and concerned party officials, there is ceaseless pressure for tactical feints to rebuff enemy assaults – although few seep through to a public that has better things to do than monitor the minutiae of electoral battles.

This can be exciting as strategies are suddenly switched amid the heat of war. After the second debate in 2010, the call went out for fresh, centrist policies to see off the surge in Cleggmania, with Oliver Letwin deputed to sift through the suggestions. There was open-mouthed astonishment as Brown’s gaffe over “that bigoted woman” played over and over on television news, the sense that the election could really be in the bag. But as election day looms, tensions ratchet up and plans change again as exhausted front-rank politicians are sent out on one last push.

It can be fun, but these are committed teams with much at stake for themselves, their parties and the country. Bizarrely, for all the current talk of multi-party politics, the two main parties seem set to see the first rise in their joint share of the vote for nearly 30 years. But they should take no succour from this; it is only down to the wilting Liberal Democrats. This long, dire and demeaning campaign may be followed by weeks of wrangling over coalition combinations – and then such is the deadlock it is conceivable we might have to replay the entire experience again later this year.

Sir John Major once noted sagely that he could not recall a campaign people thought went well until after it had been won. Yet surely there are questions over whether such a pessimistic style of politics is the best way to engage voters and inspire a nation. There have been a few attempts to break free of the negativity, such as Cameron taking justified pride in his remarkable transformation of party attitudes to ethnic minority candidates, but they soon get subsumed by the stunts, soundbites and shrillness – and not just mainstream parties should be held responsible, as Ukip and the Greens have proved.

There are just 10 days to go in this control-freak campaign. Is it too much to ask that the leading lights might throw off their shackles, spin doctors and imported strategists and project a positive reason to vote for them? That they might seek to persuade a sceptical electorate with hope and visions of the future instead of scaremongering and smears? Otherwise I fear the only plays that will be written about this campaign in years hence will be a horror story about the decline of traditional politics in Britain.

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