Ultimately it seems like this election will be significantly determined by how many people react to David Cameron, his personality and, basically, his face. The Conservative campaign has been heavily presidential, personalised, pushing Cameron vs Brown, rather than Conservative vs Labour. This is an understandable tactic, Cameron consistently polls better than his party, and it’s sensible that they should want to hide the likes of Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard etc from the electorate as much as possible given their track record as electoral poison. For them, Cameron clearly appears an asset, a smooth, modern, plausible leader – albeit helped by a bit of photoshop.
The interesting thing is that the Labour party are also highlighting Cameron in their campaigning too. If they shared the Tory theory that Cameron was a strength you’d imagine they’d seek to ignore him, and focus on the party as a whole. While that approach is sometimes followed, there seems also to be a Labour belief that Cameron is not an electoral asset, that images of him will persuade people not to vote Conservative. Sometimes in following this approach they get it horribly wrong, as in the Cameron = Gene Hunt poster, but they’ve kept it up, with Douglas Alexander launching a poster featuring a laughing Cameron in the last couple of days.
Update: this has been repeated on Election day itself, with the Sun (urging people to vote for him) and the Mirror (urging people not to) going with photos of Cameron on their front page.
So, what is it that makes the parties differ so much in how they think Cameron’s image will play with the electorate? Part of it is that they are targeting different parts of the electorate. The Tories are trying to woo centrist voters who disliked the brutalities of Thatcherism and the strident europhobia of the Hague/Duncan Smith/Howard years. Cameron is supposed to appeal to them. For Labour, Cameron is an ideal poster boy for depicting the Tories as the party of establishment and privilege, to get out their core vote, perhaps feeling disenfranchised by New Labour, but retaining a visceral hatred of the Tories – best summed up by Gary Younge. While Gordon Brown may be an unsatisfactory candidate in all sorts of ways he is undoubtedly 4 Real, whereas Cameron as a former PR man who has been involved in Conservative politics throughout the years whose policies he claims to repudiate cannot replicate that. Does he believe what he says, or is he just selling a product? In the words of Cameron’s friend (and Tory MP) Ed Vaizey “[Cameron] is, I believe, much more conservative by nature than he acts, or than he is forced to be by political exigency.” A similar critique seems to underpin Charlie Brooker’s reaction to the leaders personas.
Two of the YouTube videos that are being whizzed around leftist circles on twitter and facebook, one is Gordon Brown’s speech to Citizens UK, in which he makes a very effective speech about his values and about the history of progressive protest, against slavery, for votes for women, for civil rights and so on. It’s almost entirely absent of mentions of contemporary policy, bar the introduction of the minimum wage, partly because Labour’s record in office hardly matches the strength of the rhetoric, but it is clearly heartfelt. The other one is a, very funny, version of Pulp’s Common People modified to reflect Cameron’s views. The theme of this video, and one that clearly resonates judging by the 370,000 views in little over a week that its had, is that as a toff and a tory Cameron is bound to be contemptuous of the common people. It’s an unabashed act of class anger, with the public school, elitist background of Cameron (Eton, Brasenose, Bullingdon) and Osbourne hurled at them. Osbourne says “Yah” not “Yes”, he’s referred to as “Gideon” – his original name which he changed to George when in his teens. For conservatives this sort of criticism is simply “class envy” and both pitiful and hopelessly old-fashioned. But there is a genuine and justifiable anger at those who have risen to influence and seek to rise to power on the back of inherited privilege and who seek to entrench the power and money of their class. For anyone who wonders to what extent the Tories have changed, their policy on inheritance tax is the obvious giveaway, more so than the residual homophobia of Chris Grayling, Philippa Stroud and Julian Lewis, or the selection of candidates like Jacob Rees-Mogg, or their votes in parliament, or their shameless scaremongering on crime and immigration.
At a time when every party agrees that public spending will have to be cut, and taxes to rise in order to deal with a financial crisis created from the sort of unregulated free market that the Tory party cheerleads for, the one solid tax policy that Cameron’s party is sticking with is its commitment to end inheritance tax, a tax only paid by the wealthy in society. While the rest of society will have to endure an “Age of Austerity”, no such problems for those who have inherited hard all their lives and want to pass on their inheritance to their kids. If anything indicates the true face of Cameron, it’s that.