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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK

The poll that never was

Nick Assinder

As far as many voters are concerned, election 2001 was the campaign that never happened.

When all the weeks of tub-thumping, not to mention voter-thumping, finally came to an end on 7 June, the political landscape remained virtually unchanged.

A few seats changed hands and the Liberal Democrats scored particularly well.

But in almost every other sense, the 2001 campaign ended in the same way the 1997 campaign did - with Labour winning a landslide and the Tory leader quitting.

And when the dust has settled, it is quite likely business will get back to normal and the memory of the campaign will rapidly fade.

Game show host

That is not to say there weren't some notable highlights to the month-long campaign.

Who will forget Tony Blair's preaching performance under a stained glass window in a south London school at the start of Labour's campaign.

To the bewilderment of many, it saw the prime minister talking to schoolgirls about the problems of negative equity.

Most agreed it was a huge PR mistake and portrayed the prime minister as a cross between an evangelical preacher and a game show host - all that was missing was the sequinned jacket.

His luck took a turn for the worse when there was a monumental security lapse and an ordinary voter broke through Labour's tightly controlled cordon and started berating the him about the state of the health service.

Sharron Storer spoke for many when she accused Mr Blair of having failed to improve services - and the prime minister didn't get a word in.

There was also a little local trouble for Labour in St Helen's where millionaire Tory turncoat Shaun Woodward was parachuted into the seat at the last moment and started campaigning with his butler.

The Tory campaign had its moments too, notably when former prime minister Margaret Thatcher stormed into the fray to offer William Hague her support.

She joked about The Mummy's Return, apparently without having any idea what the reference meant.

And she blew holes in the Tories' policy on the single currency. But, just briefly, it was a bit like the good old days.

Full circle

For his part, Mr Hague couldn't seem to decide what his main campaign plank was.

It started off as Europe, veered towards tax and spending, switched to public services and then ended up full circle on Europe.

Just about everyone agreed he had come out of the campaign with his personal reputation enhanced, but without moving his party's showing in the polls one iota.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy attempted, with some success, to rise above it all and hammer home his own, unique, tax-raising manifesto.

He zipped around the country like a whirling Dervish and ended up dispelling many of the negative images of his leadership as too laid back and lightweight.

There were serious issues addressed in the campaign - the choice between investment and tax cuts, membership of the single currency and how best to deal with asylum seekers. But there were few definitive answers.

And the overwhelming impression was that voters simply weren't engaged.

That was dramatically underlined by the one big fact to come out of the campaign - that 41% of voters stayed at home.

That is an unprecedented and dangerous level of apathy and it will have to be addressed by all the parties over the next few years.

So what will election 2001 be remembered for? - no contest.

Ask anyone in six months' time what they recall about the campaign and it's a fair bet the answer will be the same - the British deputy prime minister punching a voter.

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