The Labour press conference on Monday witnessed Gordon Brown admit that the election so far has been a tale of two Nicks: of NICs (national insurance, of course) and, perhaps most obviously, of Nick Clegg.
Mr Brown was almost right it has been a tale of two Nicks, and a volcano. This was an event of extraordinary newsworthiness after all, which even today continues to crowd out coverage of the General Election. And the coverage which does manage to achieve that vital ‘cut-through’ is about the TV debates, and specifically about Nick Clegg.
And why wouldn’t it be? The Lib Dem bounce in the polls is not only an extraordinary news event in itself (and deserving of coverage even in the most crowded of news environments), but perhaps most importantly has been brought about by the televised debates. Cue lots of discussion (on television) amongst (television) broadcasters about just how important television is nowadays. Followed by the usual contagion from the broadcast to the print media.
The losers in this election campaign so far are actually not the Conservatives, or Labour, and certainly not the Lib Dems, but the policy geeks writing these health posts. An election campaign is usually the one occasion when journalists decide to give hang on, are forced to give valuable airtime to the policy announcements which give public affairs consultants their fix. But, what with the volcano and the two Nicks, journalists have had enough on their plates to write about. It is one of the first election campaigns where the story has simply not been about policy.
Admittedly that’s being unfair to the NIC announcement, on which we have seen a genuine policy disagreement and dividing line drawn. And it shouldn’t be seen as a slight on politicians, either. In addition to NICs, there have actually been a rash of policy announcements an older people’s manifesto, a Forces Charter, and an X-factor style competition for schoolchildren, but only one (on cancer drugs) has even come close to representing a traditional election campaign flashpoint. Even the attempted ignition today by the Conservatives of a hospital closure row see above has sparked and crackled, but ultimately fizzled out.
Is there any hope for policy geeks? Well, we are almost unbelievably only just over half way through the campaign, so there is still plenty of time to hear about some policies. But politicians need to respond to the changed narrative to be heard. The story is ‘what will happen in a hung Parliament?’ and journalists need to feed this on more than the current diet of electoral reform. Is the Conservatives’ protection of the NHS budget a deal-breaker for the Lib Dems? What about Labour’s manifesto commitment to free personal care at home? Unless and until the polls are upended again, these are the only policy stories which can run.
So policy geeks must either hope that politicians start talking about these issues, or hope that the polls shift. Without either of these, we will limp on towards May 6th through a hazy mist of contradictory opinion polls punctuated by the occasional and short-lived clarity of TV debates. But isn’t television important nowadays?