16 MAY 1987, Page 12



The media: Paul Johnson

examines efforts to make an issue of a hung Parliament

`THROUGHOUT the campaign', wrote the Daily Mirror on Tuesday, 'you will find Fleet Street bending, twisting and breaking the truth on behalf of Mrs Thatcher.' Actually, with television holding the advantage to a greater extent than ever before, the newspapers will be fighting hard primarily to keep a fair share of what little excitement is going. Much of what can sensibly be said about this widely predicted election has already been writ- ten.

Great efforts will be made to keep tactical voting alive, especially by papers which don't want to come off the fence until the last stages, or at all. The Indepen- dent is firm on this, if on nothing else: 'tactical voting, above all an act of con- scious calculation, is virtually certain to play a far greater role on 11 June than in any previous election'. Another new pap- er, Today, told its readers: 'Before polling day we will print a list of constituencies where, if some people vote for a party which might not be their first choice, the Tory could be beaten and MPs elected who would ensure a hung Parliament and a coalition. This is tactical voting.'

As the Times pointed out, for tactical voting to become widespread, the informa- tion about where it is likely to be effective has to be not only available but heavily publicised. 'Tactical voting', its leader proclaimed on Tuesday, 'is the new voting of the information age.' Both Labour and the Tories, it added, would intensify their gathering of such information, and then try to conceal it from the Alliance. The Times saw this as proof that 'greater information does not necessarily bring greater open- ness'. It may well be that secret big-party information and fears about tactical trends in particular constituencies will be a source

`Tell me about the midhfe crisis.' of inside stories in this election.

The difficulty, however, is that during a general election campaign it is exceedingly difficult to concentrate public attention on specific constituencies. There is so much overall noise and focus on leaders and policies. In this respect by-elections are a poor guide. Individual cases of tactical voting are unlikely to get into, or at any rate stay in, the news unless there is another newsy factor, such as the unaecep7 tability of the candidate. I can see a tactical spotlight fixing on, say, Bernie Grant in Tottenham or Ken Livingstone in Brent East or Harvey Proctor in Billericay. But if I am right, and it requires a Hate Factor to make tactical voting effective in a general election, then the process will work against Labour. The Tories have very few candi- dates widely identified as extremists.

Moreover, except in these special cases, there is not much evidence the public favours tactical voting yet. A Today Audi- ence Selection poll shows that about 80 per cent of voters will not shift their vote even when their party is trailing and tactical voting might make a difference. No Iess than nine out of ten said they would repeat their votes in last week's local elections, in which tactical voting seems to have played little part.

There is the further point that tactical voting is getting confused in the minds of electors with the idea of a hung parliament. The Today leader indeed stated the object of the operation to be to 'ensure a hung Parliament'. But what is the evidence that electors generally want such a thing, which sounds to most people extremely nasty? The latest poll on the subject in the Economist gives only 27 per cent in favour; 54 per cent are against it, the rest don't know. I suggest that the more the likeli- hood of what would happen under a hung Parliament is examined, the less attractive it will appear. In Tuesday's Daily Tele- graph, Christopher Patten pointed out that it would immediately raise the Irish Factor: 'In a hung Parliament there would be 17

Northern Ireland votes to work for and pay for.' What, he asked, would Dr Paisley demand? What would Labour have to do to win Sinn Fein support? Should tactical voting gather momentum and threaten damage to the government, these and other arguments will be deployed with enthusiasm by the Tories: if voters know they are to have a hung Parliament in a fortnight, it concentrates their minds won- derfully.

The notion of a 'clear result', settling things for a good long time ahead is, by contrast, a popular cry which the Govern- ment is sure to set up, especially if it dips in the polls. Other things being equal, the British, like most other people, like strong government, backed by a united party. That is what they have got at the moment and Mrs Thatcher is an essential part of the package. Unlike most pundits, I think she is a big plus for the Tories, especially at election time, because she stands for the certainty principle. The Guardian ran an ingenious story on Tuesday that the Gov- ernment has prepared a 'reserve strategy' to counter a panic in the markets if the polls should suddenly show it losing.

It is true that markets are very high at present, perhaps too high having already discounted a Tory victory, and therefore nervous and overheated; bad political news, even if only speculative, could have a disproportionate effect. If, in mid- campaign, the mere possibility of a Labour victory or even a soggy compromise has everyone with money rushing out of sterl- ing, and sending the shares of Britain's ten million investors plummeting, government would scarcely need to point the moral: it would be obvious, and Labour would be bound to be hit. It is here where Mrs Thatcher, embodying the certainty princi- ple, is so valuable to the Tories: anything unpleasant or dangerous occurring during the campaign, financial panic, wars or rumours of wars, even IRA outrages, will tend to provoke a rallying to the Mother figure.

Though the Tories will use the 1970 example as an argument against com- placency, I doubt myself that it has much relevance. As Peter Riddell pointed out in the Financial Times, the differences are considerable, and in the Tories' favour, for Harold Wilson went to the country after a comparatively sudden change in the polls. Indeed it is worth remembering that, only the year before, he had been beaten and humiliated by his own party on the central issue of trade union reform, and had then retreated to a paper TUC guarantee in which nobody, least of all himself, be- lieved. William Rees-Mogg pointed out in the Independent that changes of power occur when governments lose confidence in their own beliefs and change their policy. It was true in 1970 but 'No one can say that of Mrs Thatcher in 1987.' As I say, everyone will have to work hard to make this a cliffhanger.