UK Election Eye 2010: inside the spin

A number of friends have asked – on the basis of my own time as a UK politician and spin-doctor – if I could follow the UK election as it develops.  I will trace the campaign as it happens and add my comments as an ‘insider’ would see it;  interpreting the news as it really is – and not how it is portrayed.

Comments are allowed at the end of the piece!

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9th May. E plus 3

Hung Parliament.

Only in Britain can the losers think, feel and sound as if they have won; and the winners feel that they have lost!

Gordon Brown the definite loser – of over 90 seats in parliament is still using the Prime Ministerial’s trappings of office; house, plane, finger on the nuclear button etc, and is perfectly entitled to do so as long as no other party emerges to form a government.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have spent much of the weekend behind closed doors talking about their respective positions and how they can form a government.  The terms ‘amicable and constructive‘ is reminiscent of the famous words used during the Anglo-Chinese talks over Hong Kong where the term used was ‘useful and constructive‘.  There will be no leaks until something workable can be presented.

I believe a deal will be done – the Liberals are too close to power – for the first time in nearly 100 years – to back out now, while the Conservatives are so close they can smell power.  The Conservatives are looking for stability and unless they can win another 50 seats they will not have that.

The only thing that may defeat a coalition is the reaction of the party extremes.  I sense Cameron has better party discipline, where relatively few extremists will pressure him not to do a deal.  Clegg has the bigger problem.  His supporters have never tasted power, don’t understand that you have to compromise to get it,  and will continue to rock the boat to his disadvantage.  The key element here will be how secure Clegg feels within his own party.

The whole reason for trying to get into power is to execute your manifesto and the Liberals manifesto remains ready for pulping unless they can do a deal with the Tories.  The Conservatives will have to step towards proportional representation; the Liberals will have to accept a staged process to get there.

The interesting thing is that we already have proportional representation.  The voting came out 36% for the Tories, 29% for Labour and only 23% for the Liberals – exactly as the exit poll predicted.  The parties also came first, second and third in the number of seats.

If we had PR, the number of seats would be about;  for the Conservatives 258 (instead of 307); Labour 200 (258); and the Liberals would still trail badly at number 3 with 155-odd seats (against an admittedly paltry 57).  No change there then.  But the noise about PR – which is currently a practically irrelevant issue – is deafening.

The problem with coalitions is that they focus on the noise, not the policies, and at the moment the time honoured lesson of politics still holds true:  ‘the economy still comes first, stupid!

8th May. E plus 2.

…………………     no-one

7th May. E plus 1.

And the winner is: ………………

6 – 7th May Election Night.

Midnight, 00:00 hours.    Lack of sleep is tempered with excitement and anticipation.  Everyone is exhausted but no one is sleepy.  The tallying is in full swing and when that is over – perhaps by 12.30 to 1.30 am the count begins.

It is as simple as first unfolding the ballot papers, rectangular pieces of paper with a variety of markings.  Although voters are told specifically to put a cross; ticks, squiggles, random marks inside and even just outside the box are all counted.  Rarely but occasionally the Returning Officer is asked to comment on a particularly indistinguishable mark – often by someone who has deliberately ‘spoiled’ their vote.  They have defaced the ballot paper as a protest – that becomes a non-vote and is disregarded.  They may often have made their intentions clear by writing something very rude about someone or some party on the paper.

If you sign the ballot paper it is considered void as that goes against the very principle of a secret ballot.

The voting papers are placed into piles depending on the party.  Each group of vote counters has a series of piles in front of them for each candidate.  It is exciting to watch them build.  On each part of the rectangular-shaped group of tables there is frenetic energy as each Ward builds up its pile of votes.  Some Wards have a big pile for one candidate, some Wards for another candidate depending on the voting intentions of the different areas.  It can be difficult to see who is winning.

The black ballot boxes have the Ward written on the side so it is possible to guess if one is doing well or not so well from how each ward is performing.  But not easily.  Counts in the UK are usually a two horse race so the ballots often group into two piles larger than the rest.  When a ballot box is empty, the votes are checked and counted for each party a second time by someone else and then recorded by the Returning Officer.

I have been at some narrowly fought elections, where your man’s piles are dangerously close in size to the other man’s pile.   The counting continues, the double and triple checking continues, until all of a sudden the room becomes quieter – as the vote counters slowly finish counting their particular boxes.   The room is still full of chat and noise but the rush of paper has stopped.

Then the Returning Officer calls the candidates together to explain the procedure for the announcement.    Normally this is the sign for the room to quiet and for all eyes to go on that corner of the room.  I have been in a situation where the candidates have discussed and then the loser has called for a recount.  So the whole process starts all over again at around 3 am.  In that case, Kettering in 1997, the loser was so close (the other side this time) that they called for a third recount.

At 5 am, at the time the next recount was called, the Returning Officer sent everyone home and we all returned at 2.30 pm the next day.  Fresher and the count was completed within an hour – with my candidate – a Cabinet Minister, losing his seat.

When the numbers are agreed among the candidates, the room becomes very quiet as the candidates walk towards the Returning Officer – and deathly still as he climbs up onto the podium to the microphone.    The light of the TV camera comes on for the RO’s 15 seconds of fame.

“In the constituency of Little Snoring the results of the poll of 7th May 2010 are as follows:  JONES  George, John, Paul and Ringo ten thousand five hundred and seventy seven votes.  SMITH, etc.   By the power in me vested by Her Majesty I hereby declare Winston Churchill duly elected as the Member of Parliament for  ………..”

The rest is drowned out by the shouts of the victors, the tiredness of the last three weeks striking the losers instantly dumb.  Long Live Democracy, Long Live the Queen!

6th May.  Election Day

Midnight, 00:00 hours.  The campaign is over and the leaders can retire to get a few hours sleep.  The battlelines are drawn.  One party is for Change (Conservatives); one party is for Choice (Liberal Democrats); and one party is for Continuity (Labour).  In other words, ‘anyone but the same’; ‘anyone but the other two’; and ‘no-one but us‘.

In a way it has been a very tight election, rather like a World Cup Final football match with so much at stake that everyone style has been cramped by the criticality of not making an error.  Indeed Gordon’s gaffe was easily the biggest mistake of  the campaign – and perhaps the best in the last three campaigns – but apart from confirming the end of his personal Prime Ministerial career – had no real negative consequences for the Labour Party.

Election Day for the Leaders is one of voting relatively early so as to encourage one’s own voters to do so.  For the rank and file, it is a most busy day, with tellers waking early and getting to the polling station at 6.45 am for the 7am start.  They record the names and voting number of everybody who votes – and indeed will even ask the voter who they voted for. Voters are entitled to say ‘get lost’ but almost everyone meekly gives at least their names.

No tellers are allowed inside the polling station, nor any rosettes or any form of political literature, nor photographs and this is strictly policed by the local Presiding Officer.  Telling, marking and knocking up are the key tools for a political party to get its vote out on the day – and is hard, time-consuming work stretching out over the whole of the campaign and before.  It is only touched by computers on the margin – technology makes some of the recording and follow-up a little easier.  It still makes politics a street activity – which is as it should be.

Then by 9 am the first recordings of voters come in to the local campaign centre, usually someone’s dining room table, and they can be crossed off against your support.  By lunchtime, another round is completed and again throughout the afternoon so that by the time people come back from work at 5pm the knocking on doors is in full swing – or the leaving of ‘while you were out notes’ to remind them.   The key thing on Election Day is to get your vote out.  Drive them to the polling booth if necessary.  I’ve driven a few 90 year olds myself.

By 9pm much of the knocking up is over although I have driven people to the polls at a few minutes before 10 pm.  At 10, polls close, regardless of who is waiting.    Though I have known the odd polling station to stay open until the queue has cleared.  Then five minutes of relaxation with a cup of coffee, tea or something stronger in front of the TV to watch the excitement unfold.  This is something that British TV does better than anyone else.

Those lucky enough to be invited to the count – I have been to many – slowly wander over for about 11.30 pm to be met by a team of people already there – usually government workers waiting and chatting behind long trestle tables covered in while sheet.    The tables are arranged in the form of a big square with the counters behind (the government workers out for the night) and the rabble; candidates, helpers and hangers-on outside.

Already the ballot boxes are starting to arrive.  Big, black ballot boxes sealed properly at the polling station together with the record sheets of who has voted.  Yes, even the polling station has lists of who voted, and who did not, and their polling number.  Only WHAT they voted is not known.  Midnight strikes with ballot boxes in and the first few opened, tipped unceremoniously on top of the white covered tables.  The counters begin counting – at this stage just tallying the number in each box with the voting record sheets.  It is some time before the real counting begins.

5th May. E minus 1

Thirty-six hours before polls open and the leaders are cross crossing the countryside in their battlebuses. David Cameron is powering through without sleep going overnight going to fish factories, railway sheds, supermarket distribution centres, firemen and meeting other 24 hour workers.  Some say it is a gimmick – I say quite an interesting tactic that has given him some positive press and a flow of TV shots at different locations.  No doubt he is getting some catnaps in the back of the battlebus between engagements.

It is an excellent example of leaders now being on the front line; indeed the front and middle line as we have seen little of other ministers from any party all campaign.  The press is just not interested.  Today’s British Parliamentary leaders have to be able to speak, to think fast, to hold a complex brief, to look presentable, to avoid calling people ‘bigots’ with a live mic nearby, to have a clean private life and to be able to go for long periods without sleep.  Not many have those qualities.  The last man standing wins the election.

4th May.  E minus 2.

Only two days to go and the campaign continues in the same vein.  All the campaigns are out, all the big stories have been shown.  Gordon Brown has a hiccup when one of his own candidates – in an unwinnable seat calls him ‘the worst Prime Minister ever‘.   He won’t be invited to stand again.  Such is the status of Mr. Brown now as a general valiantly and diligently leading his troops into oblivion (not high) that the other parties almost ignore it and carry on campaigning.  The Tories put up a junior minister to say the the rogue candidate was off mark.  Dammed by faint praise.

The campaigns are still quite different in character apart from the use of planes, trains, automobiles and helicopters to ferry the leaders around the country.  This election is definitely the first where we have had the leaders in such a spotlight as individuals.  They are all everywhere.

Gordon Brown’s strategy is in talking to the common people and getting quite good at it; answering their often tame questions eagerly yet patiently, while Sarah Brown clings onto her husband ready to whisk him away at the first sign of trouble. The impromptu Q and A has in fact taken up a lot of airtime on the TV which is a good thing for Labour and not uninteresting for the viewers and listeners. It enables him to put over Labour policies in an apparently natural setting without fear of serious intellectual criticism.  Whatever you say about Brown he has been a great campaigner in this campaign.

One danger with facing the public with their sob stories and their hands out asking for government hand-outs is that he seems tempted to make policy on the hoof. It is so easy to offer to spread money to deal with every sob story on the street.  But he holds off, just, and generally handles people and their individual problems quite well – narrowly disguising his obvious Prime Ministerly impatience.

His main mistake – though to be fair it has worked – is that he has been invariably negative about the other parties. He ascribes the most terrible things as to ‘what the Tories will do’ – most of which has come from the back of his mind.  Almost every answer warns of impending Tory policies – most of which could not possibly be true. Tories cut the police? Not likely. At times it has seemed that he believes that the Tories would sacrifice the first born and bite the heads offs mall animals. It has damaged his credibility among the chattering classes but not among the supermarket classes.  Everybody knows the Tories will – and indeed all parties have to cut the budget deficit.

The Tories strategy has been to engage some walkabouts and some speeches, usually in good settings like factories or fire stations.  Cameron has sounded easy and assured and usually surrounded by nodding, sympathetic faces.

Clegg and the Liberals have faded as his main line of vote for me not the two old, failed parties becomes an old story.  The public needs new entertainment – a new story every week.  Clegg has been a policy-free zone this week.  Wise in terms of the way that even the Tories few policies have been attacked. He too has focused on more staged set pieces but he does sound comfortable and cool and has certainly earned his stripes this campaign.

The press has been highlighting the fact that out of the annual £37 billion that needs to be cut out of the economy to relieve the deficit, no party has come close with any policy. The Tories are the best at around £7 billion and are suffering in the polls as they are seen as the party of cuts. No turkey – or elector – is going to vote for a poorer Christmas!

2nd May. E minus 4.

The last weekend before an election is always a busy one for the campaign workers.  – in this case it is Mayday and a public holiday.  It is in fact a long weekend in the UK as the Bank Holiday falls on Monday – and a long weekend it will be.

On the Saturday before the election, I always used to schedule a ‘public day’ – especially going out in the morning and lunchtime into the local town.  That is the time to get out among the shoppers – have a stall in the local square, hand out leaflets and generally try to make a noisy splash.  If you have a loudspeaker car to broadcast your message then so much the better.

That goes on until about 2 or 3 pm when it is then time to continue knocking on doors and canvass people.   That will carry on until people get sick of you at about 8pm – or sunset.  By now all of your local intelligence gained from the canvassing process of knocking on doors is pretty well in the campaign room – on large sheets of paper.  If you have a big enough room you spread the sheets of voter names and addresses over long desks, each identified by ward (or division)  in the constituency.

The idea is to get a list of people in the constituency and, by dint of hard door-by-door work over the previous four weeks, to find out where your voters are – by asking them.  Then on the day you knock them up!  In the UK that sounds better than in the US;  the aim being that on the day you knock on the door of your voters and make sure that they vote.  Every vote counts.

Sunday before the election is a quieter day – generally getting your rosters of tellers together.  Tellers are the people who sit at the polling booth from 6.45 am and record the names of the people that have just voted.  Then you take those records  back to the campaign room and work out who has, and who hasn’t voted.  Those that haven’t voted you ‘knock-up’ until 10 pm at night when the polls close.  That is 5am on Friday 7th May in Hong Kong.  I am on the radio as a pundit for RTHK at 7am!

By Sunday night, you have your lists ready for Polling Day and the next few days is a waiting for the poll game – finishing off last minute canvassing and persuading your support to put even the very tiniest poster of your party up in the window.  That is important because you want to intimidate the opposition …… but posters should not go up too early.  If they can waste their canvassing time earlier in the campaign calling on your voters that is fine too.

Nobody ever changes their voting intentions during canvassing.  There is one exception; voters who get visited by your party and no one else, or especially by the candidate and no one else – that can sway a voter.  But otherwise a candidate has maximum of about a 5% influence on the vote – if he does well.  That is why the National Campaign is so important this week.

In the last week, if you are the candidate you need to get to meet as much of the great British public as possible around the constituency.  The time of encouraging the faithful to work hard is nearly over.  The time to meet the public is here; and the time for the public to make their choice is close.  But anything can happen in the last three days of the campaign to move the polls.  The Tories just need three percent more; the Liberals need to hold their current support to retain the balance of power; and Labour – they just need to compete to the bitter end.  After all, the last week is a long time in politics.

30th April. E minus 6

The last week of the election has started more with a whimper than a bang with the thankfully final Leadership debate. Cameron seemed to shade it with Nick Clegg doing much worse than expected.

The polls have barely improved with Gordon’s gaffe and some of the air has gone out of the Liberal Democrat’s balloon.  The Tory poll has gone up fractionally, making them now the projected largest party in parliament but still nowhere near a majority.

As this column has noted early on in the campaign, the Labour Party is obviously struggling internally.     The sense of despair is palpable and in that environment it is very difficult for even spin doctors to spin.  That Brown is going to lose is obvious and his underlings led by Lord ‘I’m not a quitter I’m a fighter’Mandelson are already shamelessly jockeying for position to lead the Labour Party after the election.

But they won’t make it.  Usually after an election defeat, the Leader stays on to allow an orderly election and it is unlikely that many of Brown’s appointees will have a chance.  The big cats in the post-election Labour jungle are probably going to emerge around the schoolboy-like Milliband brothers, young, inexperienced and not really that good but with less baggage than most.  Though only a little.  My father worked with Milliband senior in the 1950′s and was heard to remark, “he was a communist!”.

Such beliefs are unlikely to trouble the brothers as their ambition lies on the verge of exposure.

28th April. E minus 8.

The airwaves are alight with the newest British popular hero.  Step forward Mrs Gillian Duffy, pensioner of Rochdale, who accosted the Prime Minister in a very articulate and informed manner about a wide range of issues including the budget deficit, pensions, the education system and immigration.

Gordon Brown was on a public walkabout with a radio microphone on his lapel, which the Labour Party had requested to amplify his voice as he was chatting to the great British public.     Despite having a very polite exchange of some length with Mrs Duffy – although they did keep interrupting each other – he then dived into the apparent closeted safety of his armoured Jaguar with the live mic still on.

No sooner had the car door closed, the still-live mic picked up him castigating his staff for keeping him for so long with the lady.  That was one thing and he could have held it there if he had not called Mrs Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’.

This she clearly was not – she was more in the category of an erudite, concerned, ordinary, working class voter so the row that followed was immense.  The irony was greater in that he had a perfect campaign conversation with her.  In the five or six minutes that he was buttonholed by Mrs Duffy, a long time with one person on the stump, he gave a good and positive account of Labour policy.  All captured on TV.  All for once completely unscripted.  Yet he subsequently made it crystal clear albeit in ‘private’ that he disliked the fact that she debated with him, rather than completely accepting Gordon’s wise words first time.

Unfortunately his next interview was with BBC Radio 2, where he was not aware that there was a camera in the studio.  The conversation was played back and he answered and apologised very well but his body language showed him concentrating on the questions with his hands over his face – something that is quite natural in a radio studio – but looked very bad out of context.   Mr Brown was clearly furious with himself for the gaffe and he left the studio in obvious anger, something that not would have been picked up if the camera had not been in the studio.

All in all, his staff had let him down dramatically by keeping him for so long with one person – a schoolboy error.  It put him in a position where he could not extricate himself, which clearly irritated him.  The press played their part by gleefully playing the private conversation every 90 seconds, interspersing it with pictures of him in the radio studio.  Sky TV even asked the Labour Party for their little mic back.  Politics is a brutal business and is unfair but is made worse if you shoot yourself in the foot.

Mr Brown did not help himself by first blaming his staff, then the press for the incident before finally being forced to blame himself.  By early afternoon, Labour had turned all their carefully laid plans for the afternoon aside to go cap-in-hand back to Mrs Duffy’s house for a public apology.  Only a fly on the wall heard that conversation as no live mics were allowed near.

This is going to be a historical election moment, similar to previous battles such as the ‘War of Jennifer’s ear’ – a made-up health care story which hurt Labour in a previous election.   ‘Gordon’s Gaffe’, ‘Microphone Mayhem’, ‘Wobbly Wednesday’ and ‘Micgate’ are already being used as tags.

This is almost certainly the end of Gordon Brown’s political career and outwardly a poor sign for Labour’s prospects.  Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be vying for those floating votes.  However, if the Liberals get too many of those votes, it may perversely benefit Labour who could still be the best represented party because of the way that the seats are chosen.   Electoral reform is going to be in the air after the election.

The latest poll of polls has Labour at 28%, the Conservatives 33% and the Liberals at 30% of the popular vote.  Nevertheless, the seats count would be 276/245/100 respectively.

It is not the first past the post system that is the problem – it is that there are too many seats in underpopulated Scotland.  That is where the reform is necessary – not in the first past the post system, which does produce strong governments and governable countries.

The opposition parties have so far said little, following the old mantra which is if your opponent makes a gaffe, let the press do the job for you.  Stay right out of the issue in case the finger gets pointed back to you.

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.

25th April. E minus 11.

The battle really is intensifying and the vagaries of the UK electoral system have never been more highlighted.  After the Liberal Democrats extraordinary rise of about 10 percentage points on the back of Nick Clegg’s showing in the Leadership debate – an unprecedented rise in modern times – we have a breathtaking balance.

The latest published ‘poll of polls’ have the Conservatives at 33%, Labour at 27%, and the Libs at 30%.  This imbalanced popular vote amazingly translates to Labour being the biggest party with 261 seats, followed by the Tories 258 seats, and then the Liberals a long way behind with only 102 seats.  For a party to get a majority and avoid a hung parliament they need to win 326 seats.

Labour is helped by their high representation in Wales – and Wales’s historically undeserved large number of seats.  Wales has around 55,000 voters per constituency while England has about 67,000 voters but if you pin a red rosette on a gorilla in the Valleys of Wales it will get elected.

But translate that to today’s latest polls of C36%, L26% and LD 29%, and we see projected seats of 299/234/88 respectively.  If the Tories can squeeze another 2% out of Labour, or 2% out of the the Libs, they will hold an overall majority in parliament.

Yet if the Tories only take 1% out of both opposition parties they miss out, with only 320 seats.   However, there is an ace up the sleeve of the Tories.  There may be as many as 12 MP’s in Northern Ireland sympathetic to a Conservative administration and that would help a great deal in the event of a hung parliament and the inevitable horse-trading.

Power sits on a knife edge.

23rd April. E minus 13

The second Prime Ministerial Debate was held last night with honours more evenly matched.  Nick Clegg seemed to have his nose ahead again with the Conservative David Cameron shading third.  Even Gordon Brown sounded Prime Ministerial.

It is extraordinary that in a county where politics has always been dominated by issues, even if the issues were sometimes defined by personalities, that Britain has now become dominated by personalities.  Great issues such as poverty, Europe, trade, slavery, are now apparently things of the past and we are now in a ‘who is the most fanciable?’ contest.

The Liberal Democrats continue to surprise and take votes from mainly Labour, but also the Tories.  But the Conservatives are the most wounded.  Even though Labour are losing many more votes, the Tories are losing many more seats.  And it is seats that count.  They are indeed hitting the mark when they say – ‘Vote Yellow and get Brown!’.

It remains the tightest race in 90 years – a hung parliament is almost assured at this stage – and the likelihood of another election within 12 months is high.  Good work for political pundits.

21st April 2010.  E minus 15.

It has been an extraordinary week in politics with an Eyjafjallajokull-like eruption following the first UK Prime Ministerial debate in history.  The Liberal Democrat leader was easily the best performer on the night.

It has cast a layer of yellow dust all over the opinion polls.   Never since 1922 have the Liberals been so close to real power – even beating Labour into third place in the ‘poll of polls’ which now stands at C: 33%; LD: 30%; and L: 27% with others at 10%.

It does look like the traditional two party model of British politics might at least be broken.  The Liberal Democrats will never make it to a ruling position in this election.  They are too far behind in the polls and have little  in the way of policy differential to offer over the other parties than their relatively more charismatic, linguistically talented young leader, Nick Clegg.   His charisma will tarnish over time, perhaps as early as next week, but he has most likely done enough to steer his party into some kind of power sharing deal.

It seems inevitable that Britain will – in two and a half week’s time – be ruled by a hung Parliament – with no party having overall control.  This is something that has not been seen since World War II and a method of governance that has been spectacularly unsuccessful in British peacetime politics over the last two hundred years.

So the UK faces a very uncertain future with continued squabbling among the political classes likely to hold sway at a time when strong leadership is needed.

The atmosphere of fear within Labour constituency offices will be palpable, with very little encouragement coming from the streets.  This demoralises loyal party workers and saps their energy just at the time when they need to be working 15 upbeat hours a day.

The Conservatives meanwhile will be working hard – knowing that they are losing fewer votes to the Liberals than Labour but are losing enough to make them merely the minority leaders, which is not good enough.  However, they have a target to strive for – Labour supporters will be feeling depressed.

As we write, David Cameron, the Tory leader has just been hit by an egg thrown by a student in Cornwall.   The perpetrator may have been kind enough to have boiled it first as it seemed to bounce off with almost no impact on the leader’ smooth countenance.  Would the rest of the election seem so easy.

14th April. E minus 22.

The first two days of the week started with more than a whimper than a bang.  A tacit truce between the parties have allowed them to launch their manifestos.  Labours came and went with little fanfare – the main policy being to keep eveything as it is – no spending cuts and no spending rises – whatever that means.

The Conservatives meanwhile have come up with the great gag that we all belong to government.  ‘Join the government as politicians need help’ – never a truer word.  However when I received my personal email from David (Cameron) I couldn’t see anywhere to click to join government.  Any junior ministerial position with a car will do.   The only link to click was one to invite a friend.  It seems that while Facebook has come to government, government still hasn’t come to me.

11th April.  E minus 25

A quiet weekend so far.    We had an early Labour own goal in Moray where they had to sack their 24 year old twit of a candidate for writing offensive blog pieces on his Twitter.  Amongst other abuses, calling one of his constituents an ‘ugly old cow’ is not the best way to win an election.  The reverberations spread as the opposition accused the unpopular School’s Minister, Ed Balls for receiving these messages in the past and not doing anything about it.   It was perhaps the first political victim of Twitter – at least in UK politics.  One wonders about the competence of his opponents in the constituency who had not picked up this weakness earlier themselves.

The Tories meanwhile are not taking my advice and keep coming up with policies.   How ridiculous is that during a campaign!   The latest being an ineffectual promise to provide every married family (and recognised civil partnerships, so as to appease the pink vote) with £150 ($200) a year paid for out of a bank tax.  Such a ludicrously small amount was not worth the effort and was only going to lead to disapproval from all sides.  Shadow Finance Minister, George Osborne’s weakness is showing.

Meanwhile the Labour Party promise us a full manifesto on Monday which is said to say …. no change.   This is an extraordinary turn around of the normal situation with the opposition providing policy and the government saying nothing.

Meanwhile the Liberals – who’s only possibility for the limelight is for the nation to deliver a hung parliament – a parliament where no party has an overriding majority – are sitting nicely in the pocket.   The opportunity to be a kingmaker is almost as good as winning for them even though it would be a disaster for the country.   Hung parliament’s in the UK provide little leadership – but fortunately are usually short-lived, dissolving rapidly in a fuss of back-stabbing and bad temper.

9th April. E minus 27

This is the time that the spin doctors get going within the central offices of the various parties.  They sit round a long desk, rather like a bank’s trading desk surrounded by screens.  Screens in front and screens on the walls tuned to the different channels.  It is often a team of journalists, perhaps disaffected by the newspaper where they are working, and who spend anywhere from a year to a few weeks working for their party during the election.

There are constant meetings about attacking the opposition, and rebutting, and rebutting the rebuttals.  Standard answers are given for ministers – every question on camera has an answer, a question of their own, then all-out attack on the opposition.  The best performers, for that is what they are, can do all of that in 30 seconds.

Strategies of the day are worked out to deal with particular policy subjects and the right people are selected to front the cameras.  The leaders all have their own entourage of visits which are choreographed to the minute, carefully, weeks in advance.  They are usually organised to ensure the attendance of faithful party members who come holding their babies or sick children, whom happen to appear at the right time.

I sat on the desk in 1997 – getting in before 6 am to read the papers to filter the top stories for the desk (being one of the very few non-journalists allowed in the room) and leaving for an hour in the pub to debrief after the 10 pm news.  It is interesting how many stories are kept behind for maximum input.  A brewing money or sex scandal may be kept quiet for months.   And also how much news is available in advance; planned, attacked or rebutted a day before the hit the screens of the public.

Of all the election jobs for the apparatchiks, it is one of the most glamorous;  made more so in that we are all like butterflies – made to shine like stars for a short while and then desks will be clear by Friday May 7th.

8th April.  E minus 28

The Tories wheel out veteran actor Michael Caine as today’s celeb – ‘not many people know that’.  But he did refrain from telling them not to ‘blow the bloody doors off!”.  Not many people know that.

They called Brown ‘rattled’ while Brown easily attacked Tory budget cutting plans as being thought up from the ‘back of a fag packet’.  Later their spending cuts are rumoured to cause the loss of 40,000 jobs – no-one knows where that figure came from but the Tories are pinned with it for the day.   Any positive plans that the Tories will bring up are going to be easily destroyed by all opponents, so they ought to keep quiet about what they might do and attack.

The Tory lead shrinks as the LD’s make a brief showing, interesting stealing more Tory than Labour votes – not a good sign for the Blues.  The Tories have a tough time distinguishing themselves as future leaders – too many un-blooded politicians.  This is despite Labour coming up with so many policy own goals and ‘U’-turns in the last two weeks that it is a wonder that they have any support left.   As a mark of all sides’ concern to bring in the women vote, the big guns are being brought to bear in front of the cameras – the Leader’s Wives.

7th April. E minus 29

Battle lines are drawn and the messages are not surprising as they are the same as for the last six months.

  • Labour: ‘more of the same‘ (peh-lease!).
  • Conservatives: ‘we want change‘  (rather reminiscent of Obama and Bob the Builder)
  • Liberal Democrats: ‘you don’t want those two‘ (original, not)

or, more accurately:

  • Labour:  ‘we have a deeply unpopular leader but the rest of us are even more incompetent
  • Conservative:  ‘they have messed it up and now it is our turn … errr
  • LD:  ‘we haven’t anything to offer but we can say anything we like as we will never get into power anyway’

Labour score an immediate own goal by portraying, pictorially, the Conservative Leader, David Cameron, as a TV character who is a lovable spiv or rogue.  Unfortunately, Cameron is actually a sharp-suited product of the upper classes so the ad provides him with immediate credibility.

6th April. Easter Tuesday.  E minus 30 days

They’re off!

The extraordinary thing is that all the speeches by all the leaders were leaked to the press verbatim so that the evening’s news was broadcast long before the Prime Minister ever saw the Queen to ask for a dissolution of Parliament.  Off with their heads, more like!