When historians come to look back at the UK general election campaign of 2015 they might well come to view it as the fear election. Not simply because most of the parties leaders dealt almost entirely in negative campaigning and dread, but because the main two also evinced a compelling fear of the voters they were meant to be attracting.
Both Labour and the Conservatives ran campaigns designed to shield their leaders from the general public and protect them from unscripted encounters which might test their mettle or divert attention from the message of the day.
The usual election fixtures with the media were also tightly controlled; the battlebuses were all but scrapped; the daily press conferences abandoned, so as to prevent the designated theme of the day being hijacked by annoying questions. The bulk of David Cameron’s and Ed Miliband’s events were staged campaign rallies. The Conservatives mocked up corners of cavernous warehouses to look like rallies for the television cameras; Mr Miliband took to speaking from behind a lectern — even in the middle of a field.
Where leaders did expose themselves to voters it tended to be in offices, supermarkets and schools where employees might be trusted to behave. Cabinet and shadow cabinet members have toiled quietly in the regions, with few ever meriting national attention. The real election took place below the line, in targeted campaigns in key marginals, but even the greatest ground-game needs the energy of a national campaign.
Neither the negative campaigning nor the prophylactic politicking are new phenomenna, but they appear to have reached a zenith — or should that be nadir — in this election.
The consequence has been a national campaign of unrelenting sterility, punctuated by ever more bizarre stunts such as Mr Miliband’s pledges of stone or his visit to the home of Russell Brand. On one of the few times we saw the leaders facing the public — on Question Time — they came alive. They were passionate, persuasive and articulate.
This should not be a surprise; these are accomplished political performers.Of course they can handle a difficult question. Older voters will remember John Major facing the crowds from his soapbox in the 1992 election. It would be trite to suggest it won him the contest, there were bigger factors at play, but it cemented the public impression of a decent man not too grand to get out and work to win their vote.
The deeper irony is that this new separation fuels the alienation which drives voters to minor parties and fringe figures. Voters do not trust party leaders, feel increasingly detached from them, so are increasingly hostile, demanding ever more explicit guarantees which they still do not believe and forcing leaders into increasing verbal gymnastics to avoid telling the electorate truths it does not want to hear.
Voters are not entirely blameless. The public demands honesty from politicians but shows itself unwilling to reward them when it comes. We get the politicians we deserve.
There is an alternative, as Scotland showed. There may be special circumstances, but the SNP has thrived by offering a vision and something for voters to get excited about. Nicola Sturgeon did not shield herself from the public, campaigned with verve and emerged all the stronger for doing so. Labour’s Jim Murphy and Conservative Ruth Davidson have also notably put themselves in voters’ way. Their impact may be limited this time but both have seen their reputations enhanced.
In England, the main parties stuck rigidly to the core vote strategy, neither trusting itself to go out and win the extra six or seven per cent which might have offered outright victory. Both have focused on enemies within. The Tories offered fear of Scottish nationalism, fear of Labour profligacy and fear of Mr Miliband. Labour once again rolled out its same tired “seven days to save the NHS” scare.
By Friday, one of them will be just about vindicated, but only by the standards of the one-vote-more-is enough, grind-it-out victories beloved of political professionals.
The most effective leaders are better than this. They are greedy for the affection of the whole electorate. In his final speech as leader Tony Blair told supporters: “The core vote of this party is not the heartlands, the inner city, not any sectional interest or lobby. Our core vote is the country.”
Until one of the major parties is bold enough to resurrect this principle, neither can expect to reclaim a parliamentary majority.
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Labour Party UK when a new story is published