This really is the April Fool’s election campaign

by Stephen Tall on April 1, 2015


Somehow – in spite of now having fixed-term parliaments and five years to prepare for it – the media still seems woefully unprepared for this election campaign.

Oh, sure, there’s loads of quick-fire reaction to the furore de jour. Will today’s letter from businesspeople endorsing the Tories boost them? Will actor Martin Freeman’s election broadcast for Labour boost them? Who’s standing at which podium in Thursday night’s seven-way leaders’ debate and what does that mean? Et cetera, ad nauseum.

And we’re drowning in polling numbers, with journos re-inventing themselves as pseudo-social scientists desperately trying to amp-up movements within the margin of error. It’s perhaps no surprise that The Sunday Times should have trashed its own reputation by splashing on one, single poll showing a Labour lead which it attributed to a no-score-draw debate watched by few undecided voters; it’s more of a surprise they should’ve tempted the usually ultra-wise Peter Kellner to extrapolate accordingly when subsequent polls showed no such shift (except perhaps, marginally, to the Tories).

Missing in Action is any real analysis of the Big Issues or any serious challenge to the platitudes offered by the parties. Five years ago, in April 2010, I noted the IFS’s warning that “No party has yet set out anything like enough public spending cuts to meet their objectives of cutting the deficit.” They got away with it then and are probably going to get away with it again this time.

On Sunday, Iain Duncan Smith was flagrant in his disregard for levelling with the public about future cuts to the welfare bill: “[Voters] know for certain that we are going to save that £12bn. We may, we may not, decide that it’s relevant to put something out there about some of those changes.” So, if you’re one of the working poor, or disabled, or ill, or a carer, or a pensioner they’ll keep you guessing what they have planned for you. Actually scratch that… if you’re a pensioner you’re probably safe. After all, you vote.

Meanwhile Labour is pursuing its monotonous scaremongering campaign, desperate to convince the public the NHS is being privatised (it’s not) with the sole purpose of using the distortion to rally its vote. Maybe it’ll persuade actor Michael Sheen, albeit at the price of reducing the state’s capacity to help sick people get better.

Both parties’ campaigns have fundamental flaws.

The Tories are maintaining the fiction their economic policies can generate a budget surplus at the same time as they cut middle-class taxes and protect key public services.

Labour is maintaining the fiction they can improve public services now the Blairite ruse of buying off public sector opposition to much-needed reforms has been bankrupted by the financial crisis.

In a rational world, the news media would spend the next 36 days challenging the parties on behalf of the public to square these circles, reconciling their impossible policy paradoxes. But that’s hard work.

And besides the voters’ attention span is short. Which story will you tune into (be honest): an analysis of the parties’ contrasting deficit reduction plans, or a chuckle-splash on Joey Essex’s faux-naïve reportage?

You may have noticed I’ve not so far mentioned my own party, the Lib Dems. That’s because I stand by what I said three weeks ago: while neither Labour nor the Tories deserve to win, we don’t deserve to lose. Its why I’ve put myself forward for election to my local council in May. It’s easy to get behind a party in the good times, but they really need the help during the tough times. This is one of those.

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