Campaign starts with two main parties trapped in comfort zones

Published by The Independent (30 March, 2015)

The phoney war is over. Today, the general election campaign finally begins. David Cameron is expected to drive to Buckingham Palace and formally ask the Queen to dissolve parliament, even though the date of dissolution was confirmed four years ago with the act introducing fixed terms. Expect excited coverage from broadcasters as political parties move into formal battle mode and media groups roll out their latest infographics.

Pause for a second to reflect on the end of Britain’s first coalition government for 60 years. It is easy to forget how dramatic its formation felt after the inconclusive result last time around. Speaking at that toe-curling launch in the Downing Street rose garden, Cameron hailed the “historic and seismic shift” in British politics. He was right – and if current polls prove correct, it is a shift likely to endure whoever wins the ballot on 7 May. For all the tensions and tiffs, it remains remarkable this two-party alliance has stuck together through challenging times.

Five years ago, when I worked as Cameron’s speechwriter, there was a sense of nervous anticipation as we moved out of his office in Westminster and the campaign began. These are exciting events for those involved, the brutal test of all the hard work honing messages and preparing policies that make and break political careers.

Inside the political bubble, blips and bloopers cause immense excitement; I will never forget the gobsmacked reaction inside Tory HQ when Gordon Brown insulted Gillian Duffy by calling her a “bigoted woman”. Yet for all the vast amounts of effort and money poured into the fight to win over wavering voters, election campaigns tend not to make a massive difference to final outcomes.

Even in 2010, despite the introduction of televised debates and flaring up of Cleggmania, little changed between the start and finish of the formal contest. Voters had decided they wanted rid of an inadequate and unpopular Labour prime minister – but while they admired the attractive new Conservative leader, they remained wary of entrusting public services to his party. So the result reflected these long-held views, the youthful Tory prime minister constrained by coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

In some ways, how little has changed. The Tory leader remains more popular than his party, which managed to shore up some of its most damaging brand association in government. Iain Duncan Smith’s arrogant performance on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show, refusing to detail plans to slash £12bn from the benefits bill despite damaging leaked civil service suggestions, showed how little they have learned. And yet again Cameron is confronted by a Labour leader seen as inadequate and weak, which explains Ed Miliband’s risible tough guy talk in last week’s debate.

In other ways, so much has changed. Look beyond the two central characters in the drama and we find an election of thrilling uncertainty thanks to the rise of multi-party politics. The war for Downing Street involves a series of interlocked skirmishes from Scotland to the South-west, each with their own key combatants and rules of engagement that make it difficult to deliver consistent national messages. Yet each seat could be crucial in the creation of another coalition government – or in determining if either of the main parties might find it possible to go down their preferred routes of minority government.

Both main parties must overcome historic hurdles to win power. The Conservatives have to contend with a trend that has seen serving governments lose significant vote share in the past eight elections, even those fought in healthier economic climates. They have also failed to win an outright majority since Sir John Major squeaked to narrow victory in 1992, a testament to their flawed efforts at post-Thatcher modernisation.

Yet, Labour strategists know that no opposition party has triumphed as the agent of change without a more popular leader or credible economic reputation, neither of which it has under Miliband. Its contorted fiscal policies remain a huge problem, as shown by election chief Lucy Powell’s tetchy interview with Andrew Neil on yesterday’s Sunday Politics. And no party has regained power after just one term in opposition since Harold Wilson in 1974, such is the long shadow of government cast over both parties and the public.

This combination of insecurities threatens us with an uninspiring campaign. Party tribalism intensifies during elections, with what passes for political debate becoming even shriller and less edifying than normal. Now both parties are fighting highly defensive campaigns focused on getting core votes out in enough numbers to limp over the finishing line in first place, foreign gurus demanding the droning repetition of turgid mantras tested relentlessly in focus groups. This is not just the politics of pessimism, but the politics of defeatism.

What a shame Miliband, a smart politician and the most left-wing Labour leader since Michael Foot, did not dare flesh out his fledgling critique of modern capitalism as he would have liked. And that Cameron, having salvaged the economy and with support for core policies, did not revert to his optimistic style of bold and compassionate conservatism that proved so popular when he first came to public attention.

Instead I fear we face a drab, simplistic and reductive election campaign, real excitement only starting once the results flow in. The tragedy is this rigid approach, so patronising to the public, only underlines the very discontent that fuels insurgent parties and turns people off politics. Both Labour and Tories are fighting for short-term gain at risk of long-term pain for their parties.

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