With polling day just over two months away, Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer has uncovered a shocking conspiracy to buy the election:

“Payment in cash or kind in exchange for a vote – the practice that used to be called ‘treating’ – is strictly illegal. Anyone caught doing it will likely wind up in jail. That’s an obstacle for vote-hunting politicians at election time. Fortunately for them, the law has a loophole. And that loophole is massive. There is nothing on the statute book that says a politician can’t offer a bribe so long as it is directed at lots of voters. Individual bribery is a crime; mass bribery is entirely legal.”

David Cameron’s mass bribery is aimed at older voters:

“For as long as he is prime minister, he has promised, all pensioners, even the most affluent, will retain all their welfare perks. The free TV licences, the free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance, whether pauper or billionaire, the lucky pensioner will keep the lot. He has also pledged to continue with the ‘triple lock’, which guarantees increases in the state pension regardless of what is happening to the economy or how other segments of the population are faring.”

As for ‘pensioner bonds’, Rawnsley is scathing:

“…a preferential rate of interest on savings – a subsidy to more affluent pensioners, paid for by the government from the money of other taxpayers. That is so close to being a straightforward cash bribe to vote Tory that it might have been more efficient for the Treasury simply to stuff the money in brown envelopes and mail it out with Conservative campaign literature.”

If anything, Labour’s electoral bribery is even more blatant:

“Ed Miliband is treating for votes at the other end of the age spectrum by promising to cut student tuition fees to £6,000. One way of thinking about the Labour leader’s pledge is to ask what problem this is supposed to fix. Since tuition fees were raised to £9,000, applications for university places have not gone down; they have gone up. Applications from students with less advantaged backgrounds have not gone down; they have also gone up.”

The case for a radical overhaul of student finance is a powerful one. However, Labour’s policy is to leave the existing system in place, but subsidise it an annual cost of billions. As Rawnsley rightly argues, this is money that could be used to make a real difference to the life chances of disadvantaged young people – so why fritter it away to so little effect?

The answer is a depressing one:

“The tuition fee cut was tested by Labour on focus groups of younger people. I’m told that it was wildly popular.

No doubt, a similar exercise was carried out by the Conservative leadership in regard to their own thinly-disguised electoral bribes.

Andrew Rawnsley despairs at the “explicitly and crudely transactional” nature of contemporary politics. However, it’s not difficult to understand how we got here:

Firstly, the electoral mathematics is such that one doesn’t have to appeal to the whole nation to get into Downing Street. If all you care about is power, then that can be won at the margins – by targeting certain slices of the electorate. Secondly, in an age of short attention spans, a policy that can be understood in the space of a text message is preferred to one that takes some explaining. Thirdly, an appeal to self-interest is another tried-and-trusted means of grabbing our attention.

One might object that the Great British public doesn’t just want self-interest in a soundbite, they want to be inspired – to feel as if they’re voting for the long-term good of the nation. This, I hope, is true, but to succeed in such an appeal, our political parties need to have the right elements in place: they must be led by men and women of genuine decency and conviction; each leader need the support of people with the wisdom, knowledge and time to turn the vision into properly thought-out policy; and then, and only then, should we turn to those with the skills to communicate the vision.

Unfortunately, the current system works back-to-front. It starts with PR gurus and campaign consultants –therefore it is calculation, not conviction, that sets the agenda. It then falls to a ragged and under-resourced army of wonks to work up the ‘retail offer’ into a semblance of serious policy. Finally, the product is sold by leaders, usually chosen – and certainly judged – on the basis of their salesmanship.