This has, I think we can all agree, been the most stage-managed election ever. Nobody on a soap box, no punches thrown, no bigoted women. Just a seamless marathon of national messaging that starts with the Today programme and ends with Newsnight.
It is the regional media, however, that feels the iron grip of the parties’ media machines the most. We work where voters actually live. So how we are treated during political visits can be revealing. And Labour, most regional reporters seem to agree, seem to have chilled out.
Ed Miliband and other senior Labour figures are freely giving up their time. We do get asked what sort of thing we might ask, but often only just beforehand – and if we lob in a curveball it is calmly batted back, without a frantic press officer shouting us down. They’ll even do it while being filmed.
Of all the leaders so far, Miliband has come closest to meeting real people in a real setting here: earlier this week he did a long question and answer session with students at Manchester Metropolitan University, with only a handful of Labour room-meat packed in alongside. Clearly he was on pretty safe ground with northern health students. So it says a lot about this campaign that such a small risk stands out as a beacon of democratic interaction.
Someone within Labour appears to have thought: Maybe if we let Ed have normal-ish conversations with humans, that might, just possibly, you know, work in our favour. And so far they seem to be right.
Then there are the Conservative visits. The endless wrangling over whether we get one question or two (the correct answer is one). The corralling into small, airless rooms while the national media get their proper access first. The last minute emails saying ‘X will be somewhere on your patch tomorrow. We are not telling you where. But if you want accreditation we need your birth certificate, passport number and a DNA sample. And we need to know your question. NOW.’
I exaggerate. But barely. George Osborne’s visit to a factory in Bury North this week stands out. There were four local reporters. No members of the public – apart from the factory workers, who presumably had no choice. And six press officers. At least. Halfway through it I found myself begging to ask my one question alone with the Chancellor and repeatedly, bluntly, being told no, while I could see Newsnight across the factory floor doing their one-to-one.
We do get offered op-eds or are allowed to email questions from time to time – words they can control. But largely the Tories seem to have strategised regional media out of their grid. Even in areas they actually need to win, such as Bury North. And with us they are strategising out the voters. Because I daresay most people in Bury North – or Bolton West or Hazel Grove – won’t switch on Newsnight to watch Osborne’s latest spiel about his long term economic plan. More of them will listen to commercial radio or pick up the Manchester Evening News, or watch Granada while eating their tea. So as a strategy it seems pretty self-defeating.
It also demonstrates just how broken the relationship now is between politicians and the people whose votes they seek. Too scared to speak to them in the street. Not interested enough to entertain the people asking questions on their behalf. But if you are not careful, you screen out the votes, as well as the voters.
Jennifer Williams is the social affairs editor at the Manchester Evening News.