Monday, April 11, 2005

Something close to a whimper

Thanks to a stroke of editorial genius, House Points has been rechristened Election Points for the duration of the campaign. Here is Friday's column from Liberal Democrat News.

Inspiring hope

The 2001 general election campaign began with something close to a whimper. The saturation coverage of the Pope’s death and funeral, together with the lull before we all show an unprecedented lack of interest in the royal wedding, quietened everybody down.

The most significant event of the week has been the verdict of the election court in Birmingham. What matters is not that Labour was guilty of fraud. All parties have broken the law in their time, although the industrial scale offending alleged in this case is something new. What matters is that they were completely unconcerned about the possibility of fraud.

This carelessness had its source in two of New Labour’s greatest faults. The first is its obsession with reaching targets, no matter what distortions they cause. In this case the target was an increased turnout. The second was its embarrassing desire to get “down with the kids”. Even a normally sensible figure like Robin Cook told us that young people weren’t familiar with pencils, so traditional polling booths had to go. We should learn from the numbers voting in Big Brother and Pop Idol, we were told, as though little girls phoning in ten votes for Gareth Gates offered a model for parliamentary elections.

Where people are motivated to vote they will queue all night and even cope with pencils. The problem is that in Britain they are not motivated. The two main parties are too close and everything is too centralised for your vote to make much difference.

It is worse than that. As Nick Cohen argued in the Observer last Sunday, the Conservative campaign is built on fear. It is designed to motivate their core voters by stoking fears of gypsies, murderers and paedophiles, and confirm everyone else’s view that politicians are all as bad as each other and it is not worth voting.

Nor is Labour ignoring this tactic. In Hartlepool their leaflets say: “The Liberal Democrats’ crime plans would mean the killers of James Bulger could not have been brought to trial and would let young troublemakers run riot in Hartlepool knowing the courts could not touch them.”

Launching our campaign in Newcastle, Charles Kennedy said: “We're going to address people's hopes, not play on their fears.” That is the answer to low turnouts.

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