Election campaigning infused by negativity

Many things have been said about the 2005 election campaign. The Sun called it the most boring ever, while the BBC questioned whether or not it was in fact “policy-free”.

But this campaign also had its fair share of controversy and unexpected twists. The Conservative Party were accused of racism over their focus on immigration control while the Prime Minster now faces legal action from the relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq. More bizarrely, a celebrity chef’s crusade persuaded all three main parties to promise quality school dinners.

A few key issues dominated the election campaign: immigration, MRSA, and Iraq. Mr. Howard put immigration control to the forefront of his Party’s election bid, stating that quotas would be introduced for asylum seekers and economic migrants. MRSA, the superbug responsible for roughly 1,000 deaths per year, was a daily news item.

Iraq cast a shadow over the second half of the campaign following the leak of the Attorney General’s advice on the legality of war. While Tony Blair wanted to talk about anything but Iraq, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, grieving relatives and journalists ensured that questions of legality and intention hounded the Labour Party.

These are not, however, the issues where the parties have their greatest policy divides.
Indeed, Labour and the Conservatives have very similar policies regarding MRSA; Mr. Howard backed Mr. Blair’s decision to go to war and Labour have followed the Conservative’s lead by presenting themselves as “tough on immigration”.

Why then were these issues the focus of the campaign? Joe Farrington-Douglas of the Institute of Public Policy Research has commented that “the election has been fought on fear, whether it is asylum seekers, immigration or superbugs”.

Real policy divides such as the desirability of private sector involvement in the NHS, were given less attention than the problem of MRSA, which boiled down to a slanging match over the cleanliness of hospitals.

This campaign also saw increasingly personal attacks on party leaders. A Tory poster targeting Mr. Blair read “If he’s prepared to lie to take us to war, he’s prepared to lie to win an election”.
Labour denounced the Conservatives’ personalised attacks but then proceeded to release posters accusing Mr. Howard of having a “hidden agenda” for NHS charges.

In the last week of the campaign Tony Blair resorted to outright negative campaigning. He presented the election as a two party race, and warned the population that if they voted for the Liberal Democrats (the only party not contributing to the negative tone) they would wake up with Michael Howard on the morning after the election. “Vote Conservative Let the Lib Debs in through the back door” became their latest slogan. Labour and the Conservatives ended up fighting for the election not on their own merits, but on the faults of their opponents.
Certain issues were notable for their absence. To the disappointment of many environmental groups, green issues had a low profile during the campaign despite new warnings of climate change. Europe, too, was notably absent.

Labour held the lead throughout this campaign, though different polls varied widely on the exact figures and they are far from conclusive. In a campaign where concrete policy debates have not had a high profile, it remains to be seen what the Labour Party will reveal now that it is safely back in Downing Street.