The battle lines for 2015
The fog is now clearing from the political battleground that faces Labour in the 2015 general election.
The Conservative’s original game plan was to eliminate the budget deficit by 2015 and pave the way for a significant tax cut. Their narrative would have been ‘we have cleared up Labour’s mess and we are the only party that can be trusted to deliver prosperity’. As we now know, the deterioration of the economy and the extension of the Treasury’s deficit reduction timetable make that scenario the stuff of political fantasy.
So how will the Conservatives fight the next general election and what are the implications for Labour? We can be fairly sure that the context will be stagnant wages, even if the economy has at last begun to grow again. Wage stagnation was the little recognised but highly influential factor in the shift of votes away from Labour, particularly in the south of England in 2010. The lack of a ‘feel-good’ factor will greatly assist Labour – but it also raises the stakes, as how the parties are perceived as managers of the economy will become an even stronger electoral focus.
The Conservatives will fall back on their appeal as the only trusted managers of the economy and claim that they have steered the country through dangerous waters. This appeal will be reminiscent of the 1992 general election, where the Conservatives argued that economic adversity made a Labour vote dangerous. Big business leaders sided with the Conservatives in 2010 in a series of coordinated initiatives during the election campaign. At best, big business will be neutral in 2015, but Labour has to be ready for the eventuality that major business leaders are providing third party endorsement of Conservative electoral arguments.
The only way of countering the Conservatives appeal on economic trust and competence is for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to set out a compelling alternative economic vision. From 2008 onwards the Conservatives have had a clear answer about the path for national economic revival – ‘cut the debt’. Labour’s answer needs the same degree of communications clarity. It will not be enough to rely on reassurances as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did in 1997, such as promulgating the ‘golden rule’ approach to public finances.
The Labour leader and shadow chancellor will need to argue that the economy we have is not delivering for people on low and middle incomes and nor will it achieve the levels of competitiveness we need in the face of Chinese, Indian and Brazilian economic rivalry. Labour will need to articulate a policy that is clear about how the state can foster economic competitiveness and where companies need to give fairer rewards to their workforces.
Since the disastrous 2012 budget, Labour has had considerable success in defining the Conservative leadership as out of touch with people on modest incomes. The remaining challenge as the election approaches is to destroy the hold of the ‘debt and deficits’ Tory analysis that still, at least partially, connects with voters struggling with their own household debts. Labour also needs to consider whether it needs to develop its own narrative about its past record to counter the myth expounded by Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians since 2010. Miliband is now moving to a position where he is able to say that Labour has learnt from past failures to regulate the banks but that the Conservatives, through their unwillingness to properly implement reform – including the recommendations of the Vickers Commission – are maintaining the old regime of free market excesses.
The Conservatives will try to use the outstanding fiscal deficit in 2015 to their advantage by challenging Labour over how it will clear the residual debt. They will also use the welfare budget as a weapon – indicating that they can overcome the remaining debt by eliminating payments to ‘the undeserving’. Labour will need to be ready to spell out a policy on welfare based on a ‘something for something’ ethic where payments reflect the contributions that individuals make to society. Miliband can turn the tables on the Conservatives by setting out how the public finances can be brought under control in a more socially equitable manner.
Europe will probably be the wild card in the next election. By this time Cameron may have tried and failed to secure the repatriation of powers to Westminster via a new treaty. He will be tempted to fight the election in part on a platform that calls for disengagement from Europe and presents Labour as the supporter of the status quo. Europe will never be a vote winner for Labour, but Miliband will have to be ready to neutralise this issue. He will be able to point out that though British economic prospects are being damaged by depression in our European markets, this very fact means that the UK can ill-afford to lose influence over the regulations that determine where our companies can do business and on what terms.
The standing of the respective leaders will always be a major factor. David Cameron may continue to rate well on strength and decisiveness, including in a crisis. Ed Miliband can reduce this advantage if he is also perceived as having ‘strength’ as a leader. The more frequently he is seen to lead opinion on salient issues like the hacking scandal, the more likely he is foster this electoral image. The election leaders’ debates could also favour Miliband as he is strong on policy detail, whereas Cameron is notably poorly briefed in most areas.
Labour also needs to anticipate the scenario where it is leading in opinion polls in the middle of the campaign. In this situation Labour’s fitness for office, rather than whether the Conservatives deserve a second term, will become the key media talking point. Labour needs to work hard to ensure that the debate always returns to whether voters want ‘more of the same – in terms of a government that stands up for the wrong people’.
And what about the ‘ground war’ in the next election?
London will be as electorally significant as it was in 2010. A number of election studies identified that the Conservatives’ poor performance with ethnic minorities in London ensured that they failed to win a majority in the House of Commons. Holding and building on the ethnic minority vote will be important for Labour. London’s high rents and their impact on young professionals are also a fertile source of campaigning for the party.
The ‘Liberal Democrat factor’ may cut both ways for Labour. Ed Miliband can look forward to easy victories in Labour-Liberal Democrat marginals. However the party needs to anticipate the possibility that a tacit pact between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats fosters tactical voting in favour of the Tories in Conservative-Labour fights.
Conversely, the Liberal Democrats’ main battle front will be to stave off the Tories in seats in the southwest and southeast where the fall in their support makes them immediately vulnerable. The need to hold off David Cameron in these seats will mean the Liberal Democrats may opportunistically begin to attack the Conservatives at a national level. This change in mood music could further isolate the Tories and therefore help Labour.
Political developments can always throw up events (the Falklands War, for instance) that reinforce the attributes of parties or leaders. But we can be fairly sure that the unprecedented economic crisis will frame the 2015 debates and determine the outcome of the contest.