One of the most interesting factors in the current General Election campaign is the way that the polls have barely moved over the weeks since Parliament was dissolved. It may still be that the result on Thursday will prove them inaccurate (electors often tell pollsters how they would vote in an ideal world rather than one in which their own self-interest is at stake) but it does suggest that most of us have not changed our intentions as a result of the campaign.
Actually, I think that is a good thing. The search for and promotion of political policies is not something that should be compressed into a few frenetic weeks. It goes on all the time as parties evolve their strategies and commitments and try them out on the public. There have been no major surprises in the manifestos, and the arguments for and against specific ideas have been well rehearsed with us in advance. The campaign itself, and thank God it’s much shorter in the UK than in many countries, acts primarily as a check and balance. It ensures that the parties don’t pull any rabbits out of the hat. The last thing democracy wants is for some issue to emerge at a late stage. It isn’t good for short term impact to affect long term decisions about who should govern us. We saw that in Spain not long ago, when a terrorist attack was planned to gain the most influence in the late stages of an election, and it wasn’t a positive experience.
What the campaign has done is to focus us on the broad thrust of the main parties involved. Rather in the manner of our Victorian antecedents, who used to depict virtues in human form in the stained glass windows of our parish churches, I’ve increasingly begun to see each of the campaigns as a personality in its own right.
The Conservative campaign is the “bloke in the pub”. He’s a familiar figure, always ready to reduce complex arguments down to populist sentiment. He likes to imagine that we must all be thinking the same as he, because it really is quite self-evident. Labour reminds me of a certain type of local official. You can find him in the spheres of education, social services, benefits, health or other “caring” professions. Convinced that he knows better than we what’s best for us, he is prepared to offer or hold back information just as much as it suits his case. And he’s unable to extricate himself from targets – even when they are riddled with perverse incentives. The LibDem entity is by contrast a clean shaven, earnest evangelist (beards and sandals have moved over to the Greens these days). He offers something plausible, superficially appealing, and which clearly makes sense to him. But it leaves his hearers unconvinced that it would all work out so well in practice. In my own constituency the only other contestant is UKIP. I’m still trying to decide whether this personality is the Conservative one’s slightly loopy best mate or the same chap himself when he’s had a few more drinks and is prepared to tell us what he REALLY believes. (There’s a separate debate to be had as to why all the personalities are quite definitely male.)
The point of those caricatures, which I hope you will excuse as the nearest a person who can’t draw can get to a cartoon, is that all three of the main campaigns have their value. But all three remain significantly flawed. And that is exactly as it should be. We should be suspicious of any political organisation that seems too perfect. And we should expect to be governed by people and institutions no less imperfect than ourselves. The choice between the bloke, the official and the evangelist is a real one. And in some ways it’s a deeper choice than between the particular policies and arguments which have so signally and so properly failed to shift our intentions over these last few weeks.