TOMORROW marks 50 days until the General Election, and it will be both wearyingly and predictably fractious.
It is, of course Budget day, and the House of Commons will be in more frantic uproar than usual throughout Prime Minister’s Questions and then the Chancellor’s statement.
The looming poll guarantees that, just as we can be certain that this last great set-piece of the Parliament is likely to bring out the worst yah-boo tendencies and the lowest blows on all sides, a prospect that makes me groan in despair.
I’m not alone in this. I know a couple of first-time voters, just weeks past their 18th birthdays, who will groan as well at the sight and sound of formidably intelligent men who would run the country for the next five years turning puce and hoarse as they bellow insults at each other.
Such behaviour would not be tolerated for a second in schools. Yet it’s a hallmark not just of Parliament, but of the unfolding election campaign, that these young voters are completely turned off by it.
That’s because it is completely at odds with their outlook. In 50 days time, they will go in to the polling booth to cast their votes, not for a tide of political negativity, but with optimism and hope.
For them, the coming five years are not about grasping and holding power against the most uncertain of political backdrops, as it is in the cauldron of the House of Commons, but about embarking on one of the most crucial periods of their lives.
Those years will see them take exams, go through university, hopefully gain excellent degrees and as a result begin fulfilling and rewarding careers. How they vote depends not on name-calling, but on which potential Government gives them the best chance of achieving their goals.
Young as they are, they want reasoned debate, answers to questions, vision and strategy, not personal abuse or slogans repeated so relentlessly that they become white noise and cease to carry any meaning.
But they’re not getting what they want, any more than the rest of us who have been voting dutifully for decades.
Instead, we appear to be sinking into an unedifying, unpleasant and off-putting round of negative campaigning based on personal attacks that plays right into the hands of those nihilists who urge the electorate not to vote because politicians of every stripe are a shifty bunch not to be trusted.
In place of enlightenment, we’re being given mockery. Fear of the unknown is being substituted for hope. Character assassination is offered rather than debate about policy.
One of the young voters was particularly turned off by the Conservative viral advertising campaign which popped up when she was watching YouTube. It’s the one where Ed Miliband is pictured with his arm around Alex Salmond outside 10 Downing Street.
The point it makes about the risk of the militantly separatist Scottish National Party holding undue influence over the fate of the United Kingdom is a politically valid one.
What was not valid, and deeply off-putting, was the depiction of Ed Miliband, designed to be as unflattering as possible with the aim of making him a figure of ridicule. A poster making the same political point that shows a tiny Mr Miliband in Mr Salmond’s jacket pocket is deliberately framed to belittle and imply dishonesty.
This is just dirty tricks, kicking the man, not debating the politics. Doubtless as the campaign progresses, Labour will even the score with personal attacks on David Cameron, demonstrating that two wrongs don’t make a right.
We’ve been here before, of course. The run-up to the Labour landslide of 1997 was disfigured by the disturbingly unpleasant poster of Tony Blair with red, demonic eyes, which if nothing else proved that such destructively negative campaigning can be counter-productive.
There’s a danger that this negativity is propelling us towards the sort of campaigning long commonplace in the United States.
No blow is too low to aim, nor any aspect of personal or professional life off-limits. Fortunes are spent on broadcast advertising explicitly aimed at destroying reputations.
The willingness of our politicians to get nastily personal suggests that only Britain’s tighter rules on electoral advertising stop that happening here.
It isn’t too late to stem the tide of negativity. In the next 50 days, the parties could look towards our 18-year-old voters and raise their eyes towards positive campaigning instead of grubbing about in gutter politics.
We face the tightest, most unpredictable election since the upheavals of the two polls of 1974, with possibly profound consequences for our country. Were it to be settled by insults and personal abuse instead of rational debate, that would be a shameful stain on the record of every political party that engaged in such tactics.