Friday, April 29, 2005

The election that never was

The extraordinary events of yesterday, arising from the publication of the legal advice on the Iraq war, culminating in the performances of the three party leaders on BBC Question Time have brought to a head a strange dynamic in this election.

Not only do the committed supporters of each of the two main parties detest the leaders of the rival parties but, increasingly, party activists are declaring considerable antipathy towards their own leaders.

At the coal face, therefore, activists are increasingly turning inwards, supporting their own candidates and working for them, and for the "party" in very general terms but not for the leaders who are regarded variously as embarrassments or handicaps.

On the doorsteps, we are also seeing another phenomenon. Armed with records of previous voting declarations, we are able to identify many former Labour voters and a large number of those we have questioned are showing a strange reluctance to declare their allegiances this time round. On balance, the Conservative "core" vote is holding up, but Labour supporters are wavering.

The feeling is that the next few days will be critical, when the waverers will make up their minds. But, as we see it, the decisions will focused not on who to vote for, but whether to vote at all. As never before, this election will be decided by turnout and, in that respect, the experts have got it right – and the polls are of little value in pointing to the result.

However, with Iraq and its related events now dominating the national political agenda – and set to do so for the next few days – and local campaigns increasingly being fought on local issues, this means that any chance of "Europe" taking its turn as a mainstream issue, even for a day or so, is receding rapidly.

Thus, on one of the most important political issues for decade – the European Union – this is going to be the election that never was. The battle here will not start until the voting is over.

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