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The Phantom Menace

January 29th 2015
With the long campaign to May well underway, we’re now all well acquainted with the messages, soundbites and attack-lines that we’ll be treated to over the coming months. If this election feels like it’s already gone on longer than most – and with still four months to go – that’s because it has. The Fixed Term Parliament Act, introduced to give the Lib Dems a sense of security in coalition, means that the traditional right of the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament and go to the public is abolished. Instead the date is set in stone – thus the early start on campaigning. Thus months and months of relentless messaging. With five party politics now a reality in some constituencies, Labour and the Conservatives have sought to kick-off their bids for power by underlining the danger of ‘accidentally’ letting the other lot in. For the Tories, that means hammering home the ‘danger’ of allowing Labour to undermine slow, small but steady improvements in the economy. For Labour it means hammering home the idea that the NHS – by far Britain’s most unifying public institution – is in danger of privatization under the Conservative Party. Both of these dogmas are designed to serve the same underlying purpose. This is the major parties warning potential UKIP and Green voters that their worst nightmares will come to pass should they choose idealism over pragmatism and vote with their hearts rather than their heads. This may lack something in terms of inspirational impact but Miliband and Cameron hope that they’ll be able to scare their bases back into line. In this election, Cuomo’s maxim about campaigning in poetry but governing in prose has been quietly brushed aside. There are major practical deficiencies with this approach too. Cameron and his campaign masterminds – a curious double act of bluff Aussie Lynton Crosby and fey metropolitan George Osborne – hope to chip away at Farage’s converts and ‘reunite the Right’. There is a certain logic here (and Crosby will be applying the lessons learned when he helped John Howard eviscerate right wing challenges back in Australia) but the polling hints at a major obstacle. According to Lord Ashcroft’s detailed polling, UKIP voters are the section of the electorate most fixed in their party choice. The Tories may be praying that they’ll recant at the last moment but UKIP supporters are pretty dug in - even if, as seems likely, UKIP have reached their high water mark they look set to inflict significant damage on Conservative candidates up and down the country. As for Labour’s bid to seduce those tempted by the Greens, perhaps there is more hope. After all, whilst UKIP are predicted by most polls – and by Ashcroft’s constituency-specific polling – to take around five seats and whilst they have a genuinely national presence, the Green’s operation does not match its current vote share. The Greens are targeting constituencies like Bristol West and Norwich South but it is unlikely that they will nudge much further above their current one seat. Furthermore, they won’t be able to skim votes around the country in the same way that UKIP are able to do to Cameron. Whilst their momentum shouldn’t be underestimated, the Greens better compare with UKIP in 2010 than with UKIP in 2015. All that said, they do pose a dilemma and a danger for Labour. In seeking to shore up his core ‘35%’ of Labour loyalists and Lib Dem defectors, Miliband desperately needs to prevent any further flow to the Greens. That means making an even more explicitly liberal-leftist pitch which may, in turn, serve to reinforce the fears about Labour’s economic competence being so expertly stoked from CCHQ. The kerfuffle over the TV debates should be seen in this context. David Cameron knows that there is little, if any, benefit to him in appearing in a three-way with Miliband and Clegg. The Labour Leader’s personal ratings are so low – and with them expectations – that short of him accidentally using a racial slur or falling asleep half way through Miliband will be seen as exceeding preconceptions. Even worse for Cameron is the prospect of Nigel Farage taking part – presenting an authentically right-wing alternative and also managing to occupy the space Clegg filled last time, of the insurgent untouched by the public’s contempt for Westminster. But with the Green Party included – and the SNP and Plaid to boot – Cameron has rebalanced the danger. Now Miliband faces a dilemma; either be out-lefted by the Greens and the nationalists or terrify middle Britain with a pitch to those tempted by Bennett and Sturgeon. The frying pan or the fire. Labour SpAds whisper that in the battle for the airwaves they are impressed, and not a little surprised, by the discipline and unity on display from the Tory frontbench and assorted grandees. This contrasts with the open internecine blood-letting on the Labour side. Blairites such as Alan Milburn (long an outrider for the former PM’s wishes and whims) are intervening in a way calculated to hang the blame for eventual defeat on Labour’s left. Attacks on Andy Burnham’s fire and brimstone rhetoric on the NHS are designed to reinforce the message that deviation from Blairite modernisation is a recipe for defeat – casting the coming vote as an election where “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”, to use Mr. Tony’s phraseology. So, expect plenty of ‘vote X get Y’ for the next four months – with regional variations involving the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales. The pressure forged from consistent polling predictions of a hung Parliament has also created the space for conversations and conspiracies inside the Westminster bubble that would normally be unthinkable at this stage in the electoral cycle. From Labour olive branches to Sinn Fein, and the SNP, to serious discussions about the Green Party's Basic Income proposals, the Left is mulling the options even whilst publicly pledging that it is 'victory or naught'. Meanwhile, we should also expect bad tempered unraveling in the debate over both main parties’ primary key messages. An early example was to be found on Newsnight this week – when Andy Burnham was reduced to shouting at Kirsty Walk as she gently but insistently began to unpick the stark difference between his rhetoric on NHS privatization and the actual content of his policies. So too, it will be hard for Tory frontbenchers to hold the line that Labour is an existential threat to the economy – after all, that was the charge last time around and yet the Conservatives have (just about) enacted the very economic plan that they were deriding as apocalyptic. The deficit has been reduced, alongside public spending, at around the same pace Alistair Darling was pledging. And yet we are not, at the time of writing, Greece. Both sides have conjured phantom menaces to scare the electorate. The only problem is, when the enemy is largely invented, it’s almost impossible to design the policies that will successfully combat it. Spokespeople for both parties are therefore left flailing when presented with the reality – that the differences in actual policy and proposed interventions are pale, at best, and that therefore the supposed threats posed by the other party are exaggeration and hyperbole. In such a fight the content matters less than the sharpness and relentlessness of delivery. So after a month in which the Conservatives have stuck ruthlessly to the line and Labour have turned on each other, the Tories have an early head start.