Election 2001: Over before it began

This election has proved the most baffling campaign of the eleven that I have covered since 1964.

The Labour party began with all the polls showing it substantially ahead of the Conservatives.

Now, with the campaign over, that situation has barely altered.P> All the wooing, the blandishments and the torrent of words need never have happened. The nation had made up its mind before it all began, despite William Hague’s recurrent and unconvincing claim that millions of voters remained undecided.

The odd thing is that of the two campaigns, the Conservatives won on points over Labour. Hague mounted a robust campaign, almost devoid of pratfalls, whereas Labour’s was far from impeccable, including some spectacular incidents which could well have rebounded to their detriment, but strangely did not.

However well the Conservatives campaigned, and indifferently Labour performed, the electorate – if we are to judge them by the opinion polls – seemed unmoved. Cynics would say, the energy dissipated in this campaign might have been saved.

There was no sea-change of public opinion, barely a ripple, from day one when the prime minister piously announced the date in a school. It plainly had no effect on the electorate at large.

Just forgetting John Prescott’s left jab and Tony Blair’s uncomfortable confrontation with Sharron Storer, whose boyfriend was a cancer sufferer, over what she regarded as the government’s failure to fund the NHS adequately, this election concentrated, like all elections, on what Harold Wilson called the pound in your pocket.

The Conservatives highlighted Europe, with a blitz towards the end in which they warned this was the last time the electorate would have to save the pound and Britain’s independence from a European superstate.

Although this is of momentous importance, and will dominate the next parliament, it failed to stir voters.

Euro fire
Hague was accused by the prime minister of playing with fire and his policy could cost thousands of jobs and Britain’s ultimate severance from Europe.

This served only to encourage Hague to step up his warnings, with ever increasing decibel counts: a new Labour government, he believed, would irrevocably plunge Britain into the ‘serfdom’ of Europe.

Hague’s urgency was given further impetus by the prime minister’s indications that he would set in train a euro referendum almost as the first act of his new government.

He warned he could have no influence or power in Europe and would remain just a bit-part player so long as Britain remained out of the euro. And Tony Blair does not like being a walk-on extra.

Euro-sceptics are having to come to terms that they are about to lose this battle – and almost certainly the war. By the time the next election comes around, Europe as a political issue, will be entirely different from what it is today.

But it was tax that interested the voter more than any issue. The Tory policy of cutting £8bn off public services ran into trouble when Oliver Letwin, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, hinted – although he denied doing so – that the cuts could amount to £20bn.

This put Hague and shadow chancellor Michael Portillo in the position of having to disown what one of their own shadow Cabinet colleagues had said.

Public services threat
This was exploited with enthusiasm by Labour, who claimed it would be impossible for services, like hospitals, schools and police to be maintained at anything like their present level, with cuts of such magnitude.

However, both Labour and the Conservatives have been forced on to the defensive and even suspicious silence on some aspects of their tax policies.

Gordon Brown refused to guarantee not to increase income tax. The Tories were extremely coy when it came to the question of extending VAT.

The Conservatives claimed that whatever pledges Brown may or may not make, Labour in power would continue to bring in stealth taxes, which nobody really notices until they have to pay them.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ two election broadcasts, designed for maximum impact and even to shock, attracted the expected fury from their opponents, which is exactly what they wanted. Labour simply rose to the bait.

The first was on crime, particularly rape, committed by people released early from prison, and the second depicting children in state schools as thieves, muggers, vandals and drug addicts. There was much wringing of hands from ministers at the ‘negative’ approach of these broadcasts.

Blair, while denouncing the personality cult, indulged in it shamelessly with Labour’s main election broadcast – other ministers scarcely got a look in.

Hague also faced accusations of racism when he tackled the asylum seekers issue during a visit to Dover, the town which is at the heart of this crisis. His plan to detain all asylum seekers in secure establishments, until the merits of their cases have been decided, brought fury – both from Labour and civil rights groups – down on his head.

Solid Lib Dems
Meanwhile, Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, conducted a breathless, relentless but scarcely spectacular campaign, insisting he will increase their numbers in the Commons from the 47 in the last parliament, the highest since 1929. He set his sights pretty low, saying even one extra seat would be ‘sensational’.

His campaign was largely an irrelevance. The days have gone when the Lib Dems prayed for hung parliaments so they could exert the balance of power.

Meanwhile Blair judiciously did the right thing by the pensioners after the 75p debacle and gave them a handsome rise, with promises of more to come.

Amid this, Labour HQ accused broadcasters of inciting anti-government protesters, a charge vigorously denied which Labour was unable, when asked, to support with evidence.

This charge related to the left jab that Prescott inflicted on the farm-worker who threw an egg at him. That day also saw the PM in the uncomfortable confrontation with Sharron Storer and home secretary Jack Straw insanely accusing the police who barracked him at a conference of being drunk.

Hague did not have an incident-free time that day either. He had to abandon a walkabout in Wolverhampton. But none of these incidents appeared to have had any derogatory effect on the parties. Prescott received backing from people who were not Labour supporters for his swift reaction to the egg-thrower.

Blair’s fear was the huge leads shown for his party might cause many supporters – in what is expected to be a pitifully poor turnout anyway – to decide not to bother voting because the outcome seemed to them to be so clear. But that could be damaging to Labour, if not fatally so, and cost them more than a few seats.

This has been an election campaign which never really needed to happen and has succeeded in budging nobody’s mind one inch.

  • Chris Moncrieff is a senior political analyst at PA News.

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