So much for those who say election campaigns do not make a difference. The UK contest has been galvanised by the first televised debates between the three main party leaders. On Thursday, as they enter the final straight, the parties must translate the public’s interest into votes on the ground.
The month of campaigning has hardly been a model of plain speaking. Given the deep-rooted reluctance of the parties to address the scale of the UK’s budget deficit, perhaps that was inevitable. Artificial arguments about £6bn of efficiency savings and the partial reversal of a rise in national insurance contributions do not amount to a worthwhile discussion about how repair the public finances.
Yet the leaders’ televised debates have produced some sustained policy exchanges and struck a chord with voters. Even after the initial novelty had worn off, the third and final debate won a live audience of 8.4m viewers. They must surely be a fixture for future elections.
Nick Clegg’s assured performance in the first debate, where he skilfully articulated the case for change, enabled him to present the Liberal Democrats as a credible third party. He showed some courage too in continuing to argue for an amnesty for some illegal immigrants, despite the unpopularity his position sometimes aroused.
Other party leaders have found the past month more difficult, yet both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have earned some respect. The prime minister has shown once again what formidable resilience he possesses in a political scrap. While the Tory “big society” pledge was too woolly and too late to become a defining campaign issue, Mr Cameron has been right to underline the need for diversity in providing services and to reduce the role of the state.
Yet for all the frenetic political activity, many people have not finally decided how to vote. Electors are, of course, entitled to stay at home if they are genuinely indifferent to the outcome. But in this open contest, the share of the popular vote will matter. Even in safe seats, votes across the spectrum will still carry some weight. In the event of a hung parliament it could make the difference between one coalition and another.
For most general elections within the past 60 years, the proportion of those voting has been above 70 per cent. But in 2001 and 2005 it slipped back to around 60 per cent. Given the hard choices that lie ahead, Britain’s politicians must hope that they are elected on as high a turnout as possible. A thriving democracy invites no less.
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