This is a very different election campaign for me. In 1997 and to an even greater extent in 2001 and 2005 I was up against the coalface campaigning in target seats (Oldham East and Saddleworth and Hazel Grove in 1997, agent for Leeds North West in 2001 and campaigns organiser for East Dunbartonshire in 2005). This year, my job has meant that I’ve spent most of the campaign thus far in front of a computer screen watching the campaign itself from afar.
The week started badly for me, with the news seemingly dominated by that most nauseating of phenomena, the leaders’ wags (actually, they’re all wives but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the media, Labour and the Tories are taking their cues from. The Daily Mail going for Sarah Brown on the basis of her feet was probably a new low for journalism. Far from discouraging this kind of trivialisation, Labour and the Tories have been doing all they can to encourage it, with the Conservatives promoting “Sam Cam” to key spokesperson status.
Treatment of the public as face slapping morons continued throughout the week with Labour’s attempt to target their manifesto to that all important 5 year old demographic. Sadly, the Green Party have clearly decided that this is the way to go and so brought out their own 1970s children’s animation-inspired Election Broadcast. By the end of Tuesday it seemed like this whole election campaign was going to get drowned in trivial and patronising drivel.
And then on Wednesday things started to change… Actually, that’s not quite right because the first thing which excited me this week was Nick Clegg’s Jeremy Paxman interview on Monday. Paxo was his usual contemptuous, bullying self but what was astonishing was that he failed to land a single blow of Clegg. Throughout Clegg looked relaxed and calm and often rather quizzical, as if Jeremy had wondered in off the street from a different political era when the rules were different. Which, in a sense, he had. Watching this performance I was astonished to learn that not only had Brown and Cameron not confirmed to appear on a similar programme but that Cameron had ruled it out. Surely this clearly showed that Paxo was passed his best and that there was all to play for in securing a half-hour of prime time immediately following Eastenders? The fact that Cameron has turned this opporunity down suggests there are major jitters currently shaking CCHQ.
Anyway, back to Wednesday. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Lib Dems’ manifesto development process so it contained few surprises for me. What was rather more surprising was the Election Broadcast. Lib Dem PEBs are something I endure, rather than look forward to. At best they are dreadful, generic vox pop affairs with “ordinary people” saying how much they like Lib Dem policies and the leader popping up at the end to say how it is really important that people vote for him. Utterly uninspired, completely dull. Remarkably similar, in fact, to this.
So I was pretty astounded when it turned out that the party had managed to come up with a broadcast that I thought was actually good:
In fact, I thought it was more than good. It works because it isn’t simply a litany of policy-bites but constitutes an argument. It puts the leader front and centre. It has striking, cinematic visuals. It avoids talking down to people or sinking into that chirpy, horrifically inauthentic tone that party films often resort to as their comfort blankets (see the Labour, Green and Tory examples above). It has a nice soundtrack (thank the gods they didn’t use that awful theme tune the party launched at conference), scored by someone who is very definitely a Lib Dem supporter. It even tickles my geek fancies. The Brian Eno track was also used in the film 28 Days Later from which the film clearly borrows some of the visuals from as well. What kind of inspired genius suggests that a major political party’s election broadcast should essay a funky, low budget horror film and actually sees it through?
Pleased as I was with that, Clegg’s performance on the ITV leader’s debate yesterday was just the icing on the cake. I thought he was doing well while I watched it but never imagined that he was getting through to the ordinary public. The ComRes poll today, showing a whopping 14% increase in the party’s share of the vote amongst people who watched the programme clearly demonstrates to what degree there is all to play for in this election and how it might yet end up surprising people.
The anti-Clegg spin today has been hilarious. In particular, I’ve been highly amused by all the Tory and Labour politicians stating that they always expected Clegg would walk it. If you put a tenner on Clegg winning (on Boylesports anyway), you would have made back £27.50. By contrast, Cameron’s odds were 4/5 and Brown was in second place at 15/8.
The other bit of spin is that Clegg can say what he likes because he won’t be in power. Yet the Lib Dems are the only party going into this election with a costed manifesto. Yet we have been staring a hung parliament scenario in the face for over a year now. If anything, Clegg had an even bigger credibility gap to negotiate than the other two precisely because he was the insurgent candidate. Yet he overcame that handicap and romped home. As a result, he could well hold the balance of power in three weeks time. Not exactly consequence free stuff, is it?
The received wisdom is that Clegg and the Lib Dems will now be under increased scrutiny and that there is no room for complacency. That is absolutely right but there are two reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, if we get attacked more, it means that more of the debate will be on our agenda which in many respects will be helpful. I’d love it if the debate focused around around our plans to raise personal allowance for example; bring it on. That combined with the fact that the audience didn’t seem to like it when Cameron and Brown went on the attack last night suggests that the best strategy of the other parties might still be to grin, bear it, and where possible ignore Clegg.
But the second thing is that it is clear from what we’ve seen throughout this week, starting with Nick’s assured performance on the BBC, followed by the much more astute messaging in the manifesto and election broadcast, that the leader’s debate was part of a wider strategy that he is getting right and not just a fluke. The messaging is clear and it links together seemlessly with Nick’s style and narrative.
Contrast Clegg’s consistency throughout the week with Cameron flailing around with a wide variety of different messages and themes. One minute he’s doing this “big society” thing, the next he’s talking about “broken Britain”, the next he’s talking about “all being in it together”. He’s got plenty of slogans but they don’t add up to a particularly clear message and he tends to use them interchangeably rather than focus on one. The result is a mess. Brown to his credit does have a much clearer message, although his narrative (stay the course) and his sloganeering (a future fair for all) are totally different. Once you get past the Mr Men stuff, their actual election broadcast with Sean Pertwee is actually quite effective – I don’t understand why they haven’t made it a more central part of their campaign. And even if they were to sort this out, their fundamental problem would still remain: Gordon Brown.
So there is everything to play for, but nothing is going to be easy. As I finish writing this, YouGov have just released their latest poll:
* Conservative: 33%
* Labour: 28%
* Liberal Democrat: 30%
* Others: 9%
Sounds great, but when you put those numbers into the BBC’s swing calculator, you get the following result:
* Conservative: 245 MPs
* Labour: 276 MPs
* Liberal Democrat: 100 MPs
* Others: 29 MPs
So even if Labour get bashed down into third place, they will still have the plurality. The next time an interviewer presses Clegg on whether he would work with the party with the most votes or the party with the most seats, let them chew on this.