ONE week into the least invigorating election in my lifetime and I, like most of you, am still waiting for either David Cameron or Ed Miliband to land a telling blow in the battle for 10 Downing Street.
It should not be like this. With the prize so great, the chance to lead Great Britain for the rest of the decade, and the opinion polls so close, why have the two leaders not come out fighting for their lives?
Far from either man landing a ‘knockout punch’, the phrase now obsessing those political presenters and pundits spending most of the campaign talking to each other because there is so little action to report, Cameron and Miliband increasingly resemble shadow boxers fighting to a standstill because they are too afraid to let down their guard.
It’s the same with their respective parties. In the early 1950s, when the political debate was at its most passionate and involved statesmen of real stature, the combined membership of Labour and the Tories amounted to four million people. Today Labour has around 190,000 members, with the Conservatives trailing on 134,000 activists.
They are a shadow of their former selves – a private company would not expect, or deserve, to stay in business if it had presided over such losses. That’s the irony of this election. Because the main combatants lack political ring-craft, a weakness further exposed by the breakdown in trust, this is playing into the hands of the so-called ‘outsiders’ like Ukip and the Scottish Nationalists who are changing the dynamics of this election fight.
In the wake of the seven-way election debate, in which it was the three female candidates in the line-up who had the courage to gang up on the anti-immigrant ‘blame the foreigners’ showboating of Ukip’s Nigel Farage, the final outcome is even more in the melting pot.
It is clear Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond’s SNP have Labour on the back foot in Scotland. Yet the losses that Miliband sustains north of the border could be offset by the potential gains in England at the expense of the Lib Dems and the Tories who continue to fight the election with one hand tied behind their back because the political right is so split over the EU and immigration.
Like last week, the Tories should be making more headway on the back of a recovering economy but they do remain open to counter-attack because they’re not being specific on the NHS and welfare cuts – two blows that Scotland’s feisty First Minister did land on the Prime Minister.
And how else does the election need to change course this week? Here are five pointers.
1. Broaden support. Neither the Conservatives, nor Labour, will come close to commanding an overall majority unless they offer a message that appeals across the political spectrum. It speaks volumes about their respective fortunes that they’re having to spend so much time maintaining their core support rather than going on the offensive.
2. Meet the people. Where’s the old-fashioned hustings in markets and so on? Campaign appearances are now so artificial. Mr Miliband said he was in Bury to meet “ordinary voters”. Yet, according to Sky News, 90 per cent of those presence were Labour activists and the questions could not have been more fawning. Sir John Major changed the 1992 election because he threw caution to the wind, got out his soap-box and took on allcomers.
3. Connect with the young. Declining electoral participation, and specifically amongst the poor, has prompted the Institute of Public Policy Research to advocate compulsory voting today. It’s not even waiting for May 7 – the think-tank’s research fellow Mat Lawrence says today: “Compulsory voting for first time voters could help kick start the habit of a lifetime.” I don’t advocate this, but what do you do when the choice is so poor?
4. The SNP factor. After Nicola Sturgeon stole the show on Thursday, what will the Scottish Nationalists do for England, Wales and Northern Ireland if they hold the balance of power? Given the likelihood that the SNP will be the third largest party at Westminster, and wield more influence as kingmakers than the Lib Dems, their anti-austerity and pro-independence agenda needs to be challenged. If they’re in government, they will have obligations to the whole country.
5. Europe. I’m increasingly of the view that there’s not one politician who is capable of winning the argument for Britain to stay in the European Union if it comes down to a referendum in 2017. Yet former Northern Foods boss Lord Haskins, head of the Hull and Humber LEP, says business leaders are equally mistrusted now because of their ethics and tax arrangements. It’s a telling point as the aforementioned Nigel Farage drags politics down to the level of the gutter with his bigoted bar-room banter.
No wonder the money markets are becoming jittery – they, like those 100-plus blue-chip companies now in David Cameron’s corner, believe that either a clear-cut win for the Tories, or a points success which enables a second Conservative-led coalition to be formed, is the only way to keep Britain’s economy off the ropes. Can the Prime Minister take the fight to Labour and Ukip? He has to if he has any hope of calling the shots after May 7.