At the outset of the election campaign, the Conservatives and Labour appeared destined to remain in their well-dug trenches. The former deployed their advantage on economic management and leadership, the latter its superiority on the NHS and living standards. An attritional contest resulted, with neither side risking excursions into foreign territory.
The parties’ manifesto launches marked the moment at which they broke free from their strategic bounds. Labour’s austere document devoted its first page to fiscal rectitude, promising a “Budget responsibility lock”, which would ensure that the deficit is cut every year. That of the Tories, conversely, made no reference to the £90bn hole in the public finances. Beneath the Fabian-
style declaration that “We have a plan for every stage of your life”, its opening section instead offered spending increases and tax cuts: 30 hours of free childcare a week, £8bn more for the NHS, the extension of “Right to Buy” to housing association tenants and a tax-free minimum wage.
There is method in the parties’ apparent madness. Both have imbibed the wisdom that elections are won by accentuating positives and neutralising negatives. Labour has absorbed the polls showing that it is not trusted to deliver a strong economy; the Tories have absorbed those showing that they are not trusted to deliver a fairer society (as the Liberal Democrats’ slogan would have it). Like students frantically cramming for subjects they are predicted to fail, they are trying to ensure that they scrape a pass.
Because of botched homework earlier in the parliament, they are struggling to do so. Ed Miliband forgot to mention the deficit in his final pre-election conference speech and for too long allowed Labour to be defined as the anti-cuts party. The Tories entrenched their reputation as the protectors of privilege through avoidable errors such as the abolition of the 50p income-tax rate and the imposition of the bedroom tax. More recently, they stranded themselves on the wrong side of the argument over non-domicile tax status.
The danger for both parties is that their new focus on their negatives undermines their positives. Labour’s emphasis on budgetary restraint may make it harder to convince left-leaning voters that it is offering a radical break with Conservative rule. It is a risk that Jim Murphy, the party’s Scottish leader, who is fighting a desperate rearguard action against the anti-austerity SNP, is alive to. He has repeatedly cited the finding from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that Labour could end cuts after 2015-16 and still meet its deficit targets (which are looser than the party’s hairshirt rhetoric implies). But Miliband and Ed Balls have refused to echo this line and Chuka Umunna dealt an even fiercer rebuke to Murphy on the day of the manifesto launch. “The leader of the Scottish Labour Party will not be in charge of the UK Budget,” he remarked acidly. The irony is that Murphy was one of the party’s original fiscal hawks, warning as shadow defence secretary in 2012 that Labour needed to avoid “shallow and temporary” populism and accept many of the government’s cuts. His new stance reflects the extent to which Scotland’s centre of gravity has shifted leftwards.
Umunna, by contrast, believes it is essential that Labour makes an unapologetic case for deficit reduction. “I don’t think that there is anything progressive in spending more on your debt interest repayments every year than you do on housing, than you do on transport,” he told me. But other MPs fear that what one describes as Labour’s “deficit attention disorder” only validates the Tories’ narrative.
For the Conservatives, the danger is that their fiscal promiscuity erodes their cherished economic credibility. Yet it is precisely the strength of their reputation that persuades them that they can afford such laxity. To do otherwise would be to waste one of their most precious assets. They have earned political capital and they are spending it. The manifesto’s great conjuring trick is to offer the appearance of post-austerity when the biggest cuts are yet to come.
A tougher task than this shotgun marriage of profligacy and parsimony is rebranding the party as that of “working people”. As a result of the innumerable ways in which the Tories have negated this boast, many will deride it. More likely, most voters will simply be unmoved by the parties’ late acts of remorse. As the pollster Lord Ashcroft recently surmised: “They cannot change in four weeks what they have been unable or unwilling to change in five years.”
Against the expectations of many, it is Labour that has the least to fear from a static race. The Tories are still not polling at the level required for them to be confident of remaining the single largest party in a hung parliament. Labour’s superior ground operation is being reflected in higher voter contact rates in key marginals. This advantage was anticipated by both parties; what fewer foresaw was a closely fought “air war” in which the Tories’ core message on the economy and leadership failed to translate into appreciable gains. Their ubiquitous billboards and more favourable press coverage have swayed little opinion.
Labour is privately confident that even if the Tories supplant it on seats, Cameron will lack the Commons votes he needs to remain Prime Minister. The SNP’s pledge to vote down any Conservative-led government could come to be seen as the moment he was locked out of No 10.
George Osborne is fond of citing Lyndon Johnson’s first rule of politics: that its “practitioners need to be able to count”. It is not the parties’ messages but the parliamentary maths that will determine who governs. On matters political as well as fiscal, it is Labour that is better able to make the sums add up.