Now that the 2010 election campaign is finally, mercifully over, the short period between the close of polls and the arrival of the first few results is perhaps a good time to reflect on the last few weeks. (I may even find the time for a late hostage-to-fortune in the shape of a prediction of how the night may unfold.)
This is the fifth General Election at which I’ve been eligible to vote, and it is also by far the most interesting one I can recall in my lifetime. I remember well the euphoria of 1997, with the dramatic end of the Tories’ eighteen-year reign, the iconic “Portillo Moment”, Martin Bell quoting (as I remember it) G.K. Chesterton after he defeated Neil Hamilton, and mainland Britain’s three Celtic nations proudly declaring themselves Tory-free zones. But what 1997 lacked was any sense of the unexpected happening. It was pretty clear from the outset that the electorate couldn’t wait to be rid of John Major’s hapless government, and the only unknown quantity was the size of Tony Blair’s majority (massive, as it turned out).
2010 has been different ever since the first Leaders’ Debate – pounding the streets and rural roads of North Cornwall it’s been noticeable that people seem much more engaged with the political process than has been the case in previous years. I think this is in large part due to these debates and it would seem that they have changed the way elections will be done from now onwards. I must admit to being sceptical about these set-pieces at the start of the campaign, but if they enthuse people (particularly younger voters) to get involved then they have to be a good thing.
Without a doubt, and regardless of the result, the story of the 2010 General Election has been the emergence of Nick Clegg. He was always going to be a beneficiary of the equal exposure of the Leaders’ Debates, but the manner in which he grasped the opportunity with both hands was extraordinary and led to extreme panic among the strategists of the “old parties”. He also finally managed to take ownership of a party whose main saleable asset had previously been Vince Cable. Over the series of debates he was the clear winner, and his emergence sparked an interest in this campaign the like of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime. On the doorsteps it was noticeable that, through the debates and Clegg’s dominance of them, people were engaging in the democratic process where previously they might have opted out. Undoubtedly the star of the 2010 General Election.
It has been a campaign to forget for Gordon Brown, despite a brief glimmer of life on the last Monday of the campaign when he spoke with some of the passion I remember him having before power took its toll. Nevertheless his campaign will most probably be remembered for ‘Bigotgate’, 2010’s storm in a teacup which nevertheless sparked a media feeding frenzy and forced his return to Rochdale to apologise in person to the woman he had insulted. It didn’t do him any good as she ended up saying she wouldn’t vote.
It was also clear that the televised debates were not a happy forum for him. By the end of the sequence he had appeared to recognise that and started to use his lack of telegenicity (if there is such a word) as further proof of his standing as a man of substance rather than presentation. Even so, most observers would say that, throughout the debates, he was the poorest performer out of the three party leaders. As I write this I have no idea of the results, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Gordon Brown to be focussing on a well-earned retirement.
David Cameron was perhaps the enigma of the campaign. We were all led to believe that here was the Tory answer to Tony Blair, a grand communicator who would sweep his opponents aside once the campaign commenced. Instead the Conservative campaign slipped into lavishly-funded mediocrity. Considering he could once point to poll leads of 28%, the level to which the Tories nearly threw it away is astonishing. Their campaign has been at times tetchy and patronising with an unwelcome air of entitlement running through, and their allies in the print media have hardly shown off their more edifying side (the Tory-orchestrated attacks on Nick Clegg were nothing short of a disgrace). It nevertheless seems to have been just enough in the end to drag them to the line.
So now we must look to the next phase of our parliamentary process. I have long thought, given the particular set of circumstances, that the 2010 election would be a good one to lose, with the winners being punished for having to do the difficult things to stabilise the UK economy. The Liberal Democrats will have learned a great deal from this election, but so too will their opponents. Everyone will be ready for Nick Clegg next time. Even so, the Lib Dems will certainly be able to claim they won the campaign, even if they didn’t win the election. There are now great foundations to be built on.
Labour historians may well look back at the 2010 election and conclude that losing it was a far better outcome than winning it might have been – they have their chance for party renewal under the cover of opposition.
Equally there’s every chance that the Tories may look back and wish there had been a hung parliament.
[So that late hostage-to-fortune? I think David Cameron will be Prime Minister by lunchtime tomorrow, with our barmy voting system delivering him a small ‘working’ majority. Kill me in the Comments if I’m wrong (as I’d love to be).]