Battlegrounds of the next election

The battle lines of the next election are starting to become clearer thanks to four significant political moments in the last quarter of 2012. In October, the three party leaders used their conference speeches, each high calibre in different ways, to set out their parties’ political strategies for the second half of the Parliament. And the year ended with a highly political Autumn Statement, the reverberations of which will be felt until the 2015 general election and beyond.

Let us begin with the conference speeches and take them in reverse order. Conservative leaders have the huge advantage of going last, meaning they can respond to their rivals and have the final word of the conference season. Prime Minister David Cameron used this opportunity to great effect, providing in his speech a new level of strategic clarity. While reprising his pitch to core Tory voters (immigration, Euroscepticism) and metropolitan liberals (gay marriage, public service reform), he opened a new and significant flank in the Conservative agenda – a full-throated appeal to what he described as Britain’s “strivers”, those people and families who work hard and do the right thing.

Cameron has studied the electoral history of Thatcher and Disraeli and knows that a Conservative majority simply cannot be delivered without blue-collar voters. More particularly, he believes that victory will require the support of women in working families. His appeal has three parts. Firstly, the benefits cap is designed to assuage the feeling held by many voters that they struggle on while benefit recipients get ‘something for nothing’. Secondly, the message on the deficit, while undoubtedly bitter medicine, is meant to show that only Cameron’s leadership is tough enough to see the country through the economic dark times. This potentially gloomy prospectus is leavened by the third part of Cameron’s appeal: school reform.  This is about providing a sense of hope and optimism that we can re-educate ourselves back into contention in the global race. Cameron hopes this combination of leadership, fairness and hope for the future will be enough to persuade the strivers to back him.

This is, of course, familiar territory for Labour leader Ed Miliband. He was onto the issue of the ‘squeezed middle’ very soon after he was elected, and before any of the other party leaders. Miliband knows that the next election will be won by the party that can best persuade middle England that it has their interests at heart. He intends to put living standards at the heart of his election campaign by arguing that the Coalition has failed to improve the lives of Britain’s hard-working families. He has made the initial weather on issues such as energy bills and, when he can resist the temptation to indulge in high-minded philosophising, has a keen eye for consumer issues. This is territory that Gordon Brown claimed very successfully in the run up to New Labour’s spectacular 1997 election victory, based on a message that only Labour can be trusted to make markets work to the benefit of consumers rather than big companies. This is smack in the centre ground of British politics and Miliband would be well advised to stay there.

Miliband’s Disraelian One Nation rhetoric is clever positioning, not only because it was an appeal to the common values that define the British middle-classes, but also because it provides the counterpoint to his argument that the Tories are out of touch ‘toffs’ with no understanding of how the average voter lives. This is a toxic association that Conservatives dread, and which they have been fighting to jettison ever since the 2012 Budget cut the top rate of tax. However, Miliband should bear in mind that Labour’s Achilles heel is the electorate’s sense that they are on the side of the scroungers and undeserving poor, which is exactly why the Chancellor challenged them to vote against his plans to limit the increase in benefits. On any question like this, Labour risk offending many of the striving classes for whom the government can never be tough enough on welfare.

The challenge for Nick Clegg is, and will remain, to stay relevant. The Liberal Democrats’ raison d’etre is to participate in coalition governments and they need to demonstrate that the role of the party is more than simply to prop up the dominant major party with lobby fodder. This is the heart of Clegg’s strategy.  He did a good job of highlighting not only the ‘wins’ his party have achieved over the last three years, particularly on green policies and the increase in the income tax threshold, but also how he had reined in some of the Conservatives’ more radical policy suggestions, for example on freezing benefits or scrapping employment regulations. His pitch to voters in 2015 will be that the Liberal Democrats are not only tough enough to be in government, but that they also moderate the agenda of whichever of the two main parties is in power. Clegg’s position on the boundary review is highly significant here. He feels wronged by the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Lords reform and is determined to show that he cannot be rolled over. In theory, at least, this pragmatic centrism has electoral appeal and should position his party well for the possibility of a hung Parliament in 2015.

And that is the electoral outcome that still appears to be the most likely. The failure of the boundary review means the Conservatives have to win by at least eight percentage points for a majority of one. Labour undoubtedly hold a significant advantage now the old boundaries are staying in place, and are consistently ten points ahead in the polls. But we know that the next election, like most others before it, will be won by the party that is most trusted on the economy and whose leaders have the highest ratings. The Conservatives still inch ahead in these stakes, which is what gives them confidence that an unlikely comeback is possible.

Paradoxically, given the bad news he had to convey, the Conservatives’ confidence received a significant boost from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. The extension of austerity well into the next Parliament piles pressure onto Labour. Do they promise to stick to the Coalition’s spending plans, as New Labour did in 1997, and in doing so dismay many in their party and the unions? Or, do they promise to tax and spend more as John Smith did in his memorable shadow Budget before the disastrous 1992 general election? This is the hardest decision that any Opposition leader has to make, and most flunk it. Cameron and Osborne want to run a campaign along the line of “Britain’s on the right track, don’t turn back”. Labour need to demonstrate that they have learnt their lessons and can be trusted with the economy and public finances once more. This is the fight that will determine the makeup of the next government, and it promises to be a long and bitter one.