I am old enough to remember the elections of the 1970s and, as a Times journalist, I covered the 1987, 1992 and 1997 contests. I also worked for William Hague as a press spokesman in 2001. In the last three elections, I have been an interested observer.
I have to say this has been the dullest campaign in living memory. The polls have hardly shifted; there has not been a single ‘story’ that has lasted more than 24 hours; the TV debates proved only of passing significance. Gaffes, splits, rows and soaring rhetoric have been in spectacularly short supply. No one figure has come to dominate the landscape.
We are repeatedly told that this is the most important election since 1979 yet the lack of drama and suspense is palpable. The public appear apathetic and even the Tory-supporting press has struggled to inject any sparkle into the contest. At this rate the BBC will have to broadcast an all-stations alert just to remind people that today is decision day.
Why should this be the case? Why has the election fallen as flat as the kind of pancake that Ed Miliband would hesitate to eat in public.
First, the three main parties are all clustered around the perceived centre ground. On the main issue of the economy, they are all constrained by the long shadow of the austerity programme began in 2010 and now stretching into the 2020s. There was no money left and there is still no money left. The parties project their tax and spending plans far into the future, miraculously conjuring up extra cash for pet projects while promising tax cuts stretching over the horizon. The public may not be Bank of England economists but they sense that there is something wrong with all this. Promises of billions more for health and education, whoever utters them, are not really believed; neither are the pledges of an end to punitive taxation.
Can a country with a deficit of £90 billion and a national debt of £1.5 trillion be serious in promising itself jam tomorrow? Has the business cycle been abolished? Will there never be another recession? Was Gordon Brown right in the long run when he spoke of an end to boom and bust? The Osborne, Balls and Clegg plans to balance the books, sometime soon but not just yet, all depend on healthy economic growth over the next five years. Perhaps they are right – and perhaps they are wrong. The truth is no one can predict the course of an economy over that long a period. And the public know it.
On other key topics, such as the organisation of health care, raising school standards, foreign policy (towards the Middle East and Russia in particular), defence, immigration and the EU, the parties have little fresh to say. Indeed, bar Ukip’s distinctive positions, these areas have been little ventilated or discussed.
Perhaps, Ed Miliband sensed this widespread disbelief when he came up with his ludicrous “Edstone”, vacuous and uncheckable promises of sunny weather for ever carved in limestone to give the impression of solidity.
Perhaps distance lends enchantment, but past elections were about something: genuine budgetary control, sweeping cuts in personal taxation, market-based reform of the public services, a Titanic battle over union power, the right to manage, the preservation of the nuclear deterrent in the face of the disarmament lobby, privatisation and the advancement of market economics.
They were also marked by big personalities: Thatcher, Foot, Callaghan, Healey, Benn, Castle, Powell, even Blair and Brown. Today’s generation of leaders are diminished by comparison.
The boundaries of political debate have also narrowed. Bureaucracy, political correctness, the Twitter lynch mob, the growth of the culture of offence, victimhood and complaint have all combined to reduce discourse to platitudinous soundbites. The closing of the British mind to anything that sits outside the stultifying confines of polite, liberal exchanges of the kind that pervade the more serious end of the BBC has sucked the life out of our democracy.
Then there are the message controllers. As the press has repeatedly pointed out, this has been the most tightly managed election ever. Gone are the morning press conferences – indeed any press conferences – at which the media could push political leaders on their views and policies. The gaffe, by which a key player actually told the unvarnished truth, has all but disappeared from the scene. Nor has it been possible for the media to drill down into the meaning or lack of it of a central policy.
Most members of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have been dispatched to marginal seats in search of a futile photocall or patsy interview with regional media. Only the leaders and one or two favoured senior figures (eg George Osborne endlessly modelling high-viz jackets and hard hats) ever seem to appear on the screen. Almost everyone is on message every time with predictably tedious results.
Nigel Farage has sought to break out of this prison of the mind, but he has been muted by the need to battle for his life in South Thanet and the reluctance of the media to give him the oxygen of publicity. The steely Nicola Sturgeon has tossed a laser-guided caber in the general direction of the British establishment and caused much mayhem in the process. She should be admired for that, but her purposes and methods are hardly for the common good.
Will any of this change the next time we go to the polls, which could be sooner than we think? I am not holding my breath.