2014 is the year when manifestos will start to be written and clear blue water established between the three main parties – policy asks and policy risks will both come to the fore for politically engaged businesses this year.
At the headline level, little has changed since the Party Conferences. It remains the case that Labour’s unconvincing poll lead means Ed Miliband is struggling to inspire confidence and enthusiasm in all but his most loyal consiglieres. In 2014, Miliband will also face the ‘Special Conference’ on Union funding which he set in motion – nothing will be decided, the actual proposals have been kicked well into the long-grass of 2017 – but expect plenty of posturing. Miliband’s essential problem is that he is widely perceived by both his own party and the opposition as being a friendless man in politics. Battles over policy will come to the fore in 2014, as Michael Dugher, Douglas Alexander and Jon Cruddas all fight for their right to definitively shape the 2015 manifesto. Expect more in the way of unhelpful leaking about niche internal and operational questions – as we saw just before Christmas with the leak that Alan Milburn and other New Labour veterans are being consulted about Labour’s election strategy. These stories will not resonate with the public but will add to the perception that Ed Miliband is unable to exert the iron discipline usually understood to be required in a winning candidate.
David Cameron, meanwhile, has long dreaded 2014 as the year in which his issues with UKIP will become undeniable and politically toxic – expect a victory or second place for UKIP in the European elections, with the Tories trailing in third place. It is also possible that UKIP will win a by-election, should the right opportunity arise. Many in Cameron’s party are sympathetic to UKIP defectors and want to strike a deal – Toby Young (Tory commentator and close friend of both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) recently launched the ‘Country before Party’ campaign to encourage Tory and UKIP voters to swap their votes in key marginal constituencies. Cameron will look weak and hand a massive boon to the Labour Party if he goes for a deal with Farage. But without one, Tory backbench disquiet will build to a crescendo in the post-Euros panic.
Ironically, given the many premature political obituaries that have been written about him, Nick Clegg is the most secure of the three main party leaders. He successfully demonstrated utter dominance (and humiliated his primary competitors, Cable and Farron) at Party Conference and enters the New Year with a clear ‘differentiation strategy’ that will win back some grassroots support and keep him in the headlines all year long. At the European elections, Lib Dems are counting on the ‘forgotten 20%’ – that portion of voters who consistently respond positively to polling on the EU. Expect them to buck the political trend and loudly reaffirm their Europhile instincts as we head for the vote.
The policy landscape will become more sharply partisan as we enter the downward slope for the coalition. The Lib Dems are on the look-out for ‘differentiation’ issues and the Conservative Party recognises that – in facing down UKIP – spats over immigration, human rights and tax are useful in explaining why a majority Tory Government would be different. David Cameron’s enthusiastic official support of James Wharton’s Private Members Bill on a
European Referendum highlights one of the avenues that both he and Clegg can use to send public messages while remaining in shared Government. Expect more ‘spontaneous’ initiatives from backbenchers on both sides, with the public support of their respective leaders.
For Labour, the expertly managed ‘cost of living’ narrative at least provides a frame around which different camps can agree. It has successfully dominated the media/political analysis of the last few months and will continue to do so – it is especially useful to Labour as it avoids the psychologically difficult territory of re-examining Gordon Brown’s actions in Government. However, there are real issues with public trust in Labour’s capacity to deliver any real difference. A growing number of Labour insiders are concerned that potential coalition with the Lib Dems (an increasingly likely prospect) might put an end to key policies such as the Energy Freeze. Ed Balls’ recent, very public rapprochement with Nick Clegg highlights how seriously even arch-tribalists in Labour are taking the chances of needing to do a deal with the Lib Dems. But many ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems – such as the still powerful David Laws – privately describe price-fixing in the energy market as ‘bonkers’. For them, this is both instinctive and tactical – in a scenario of a potential Lib-Lab coalition, the Lib Dems will need to show that they bring economic credibility to the table. Expect Miliband to tread more carefully on policy now that he feels Britain has accepted his diagnosis.
2014 is a campaign year. We have the European elections and the Scottish Referendum (which looks set to be won handsomely by the ‘No’ camp) but, really, these are merely dry runs for the 2015 General Election which is already being fought. This will be a very political year and any company relying on political consent for their core business operations will have to tread even more carefully than usual – anything and everything is up for grabs in the political battle to draw firm red lines between the parties. Whilst there will be a carapace of civility – in recognition of the possibility of fresh coalition negotiations in May 2015 – this will be a vicious year, even by Westminster standards.