The bar was, admittedly, set very low. The double-whammy of the 2008 financial crash and the 2009 MP expenses scandal had already sent trust in politicians tumbling. Add in a high-profile broken promise from the only party leader who was relatively well-liked and it wasn’t hard to see why so many Britons had become disillusioned with the way their country was run.
Yet this election has been an unexpected success. Turnout – and please bear in mind I’m writing this before the polls close – may even be higher than the 71 per cent who voted in 1997 when Tony Blair swept to power. Over the past 12 months, membership for the Scottish National Party and the Greens has soared. Politics has been on the front pages and at the top of bulletins and voters haven’t turned away. The old lie that some politicians and pundits tell about voters – that they’re apathetic – should be put to bed.
So too should the story some voters tell about politicians – that they’re all the same. This has been an election where issues have mattered. There were really differences between the two main parties, while the rise of the smaller parties, from UKIP to the Greens, meant that views not normally heard were given airtime. Want a top tax rate of 60 per cent? You can vote for it. Want to leave the European Union? You can vote for it.
There have been low points. The obsession with polling – and yes, we’ve joined in with that at times – has meant far too much time has been spent discussing the horse race rather than the actual issues. A Cardiff University study of TV news showed that almost a quarter of all on-air debate about the election in the final week was about the opinion polls. Less than half of all airtime across the campaign has centred on policy.
And apart from a few honourable exceptions, the BBC’s Andrew Neil being one of them, the broadcasters have also failed to shine much of a light on the main parties’ policies. The Conservatives have managed to get through the entire campaign without having to explain precisely what they would cut from the welfare budget or how they would pay for their increased funding for the NHS. Labour will be breathing a sigh of relief that they were rarely put under any level of sustained questioning on foreign policy.
These are serious problems but writing this on a sunny day, when there are queues outside polling stations and social-media streams are filled with proud voting declarations that border on the smug, it’s not hard to feel happy. British democracy has been through a difficult few years – and the possible coming debate about who forms the next government may not be easy either – but this election has shown that people still care and politicians still have ideas. That’s a start, isn’t it?
Monocle is Steve Bloomfield’s executive editor.