Vote 2010: An election reflection

The general election of 2010 is the closest in a generation. Left Foot Forward sets out its reflections on a most extraordinary election campaign.

Left Foot Forward will be updating the website today with films from the campaign trail in London. And please join us from 10pm for our liveblog of election night.

The general election of 2010 is the closest in a generation. If UK Polling Report’s poll of polls is correct, we’re heading for a hung parliament with no clear winner. Unlike four in 10 British voters, we expect that most of our readers will know how they’re voting this morning. But since there’s little point bringing you a newspaper review on a day that the news stops and the country votes, we thought you might like to know our reflections on the election campaign.

Britain is emerging from an economic crisis, may well wake up tomorrow in a constitutional crisis, and will face an environmental crisis unless swift action is taken. Sadly the election campaign has focused more on process than policy, more on style than substance, and more on fears than hopes for the future. Some of this has been inevitable. The bankruptcy of the electoral system and tightness of the race has necessitated speculation about what would happen in a hung parliament as well as strategies for tactical voting. The three TV debates have encouraged endless slow motion replays of hand gestures and gaffes. But both main parties have been guilty for running negative campaigns.

Labour’s campaign has shown moments of inspiration such as Gordon Brown’s speech to Citizens UK and Eddie Izzard’s “Brilliant Britain” video but much of the last month has focused on the legitimate (but negative) fears of what a Tory government would do. Labour has largely failed to defend its record or paint a positive vision of the future, despite excellent material in its largely progressive manifesto. That said, the Tories have been far worse. Their description of “Broken Britain” was torn apart earlier this year by The Economist but they continue to peddle lies and half truths about violent crime, Labour’s poverty record, youth unemployment, and comparisons with Greece’s public finances. The fears stoked about the risk of a hung parliament have been dubbed “irresponsible” by the normally favourable Institute of Directors. Worst of all they have been complicit in the disgraceful Murdoch-inspired right-wing attacks on Nick Clegg, which may well backfire. Their vacuous idea of a “Big Society” has done little to offset the negativity. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have brought a breath of fresh air to the election and they deserve to increase their share of the vote. We have supported their approach to Trident and climate change. But much of their policy – particularly on tax, banking reform, and immigration – requires further scrutiny.

On policy, the economy should have been the big issue of the election with questions answered about how Britain will grow in the future, where jobs will come from, how the fiscal consolidation will be achieved, and how another banking crisis will be prevented. None of the parties have risen to this challenge. The debate has been largely devoid of any focus on a green new deal or other strategies to bolster Britain’s industries of the future. Although Labour deserves much praise for its Future Jobs Fund, which the Tories oppose, a wider discussion of unemployment has been noticeably absent during this campaign. As widely reported, the three parties have left more unsaid than said on the fiscal deficit leaving voters largely in the dark on where the axe will fall. Finally, only the Liberal Democrats have set out a radical vision for banking reform, but their policies still fall short of what is needed.

Instead of an intelligent debate about the economy, immigration has become the surprise issue of the election. It has been a concern for at least one-in-three voters for some time and was the only issue raised in each of the three leaders’ debates. Labour is deeply unpopular on the issue and spent much of its time in office with its head in the sand. “Bigot-gate” hardly helped. Nonetheless, its policies are the most coherent and all three parties accept Labour’s building blocks including free movement within the EU; a points-based system for work and study; and a much improved (if not perfect) asylum system. The Conservatives, by contrast, have failed to clarify details of their proposed immigration cap and the numbers don’t stack up. The Liberal Democrats’ proposed amnesty for illegal immigrations is a brave policy and has been well received by progressives but questions remain about how it would work in practice while their regional points-based system won’t provide a real solution.

On the environment, the Liberal Democrats clearly “get” the importance of tackling climate change and Labour has set out its own green appeal. The Tories, meanwhile, refuse to back up their positive rhetoric: their candidates reject onshore wind development, won’t pledge action to cut greenhouse emissions, many question whether climate change is man made, and they rank the issue bottom of a list of 19. Their frontbenchers cannot explain the party’s climate scepticism and it is little wonder when they are planning to open up offshore drilling. There is a similar story on constitutional reform. Labour and Lib Dems are both committed to reform of the electoral system and House of Lords, two of five key public demands. But the Tories have blocked removal of hereditary peers and ruled out changes to the electoral system.

Britain’s needs are clear: an approach to deficit reduction that protects the most vulnerable, a renewed focus on reducing carbon emissions, and a constitutional settlement involving meaningful electoral reform. The risk to Britain of a Conservative victory could not be clearer. Although it has run a lacklustre campaign and will need a new approach to its politics, Labour is still top on policy. But with virtually no chance of an outright Labour majority, the only hope for a progressive future is a hung parliament and a Lib-Lab coalition. Getting there is not straightforward. Unless you live in a Lib Dem – Conservative marginal, a vote for the Lib Dems will be largely wasted. The Lib Dems cannot win in 70 per cent of the Tories’ target seats and taking seats from Labour means less chance of a progressive future, not more.

In the midst of all this uncertainty one thing is abundantly clear: whatever you do today, vote. And make sure that your claim on the future enables real progress, rather than a back door route for Mr Cameron to enter No. 10.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.