The right answer, the wrong question

“People think campaigns are about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself”. Whilst expressed by the fictional Josh Lyman in ‘The West Wing’, this maxim has constituted the foundation of both the Labour and Tory strategic outlook in this election so far. That is, until this week.

In the months running up to the General Election, and indeed into the Election itself, both parties pursued contrasting strategies which were identical in their conception; to ensure that the election campaign was constructed around certain issues, framed in a particular discourse, so that it would be impossible for the opposing party to ever evenly compete. For the Conservatives, this meant focussing on areas where they consistently polled higher than Labour: trust in running the economy, cutting the deficit and delivering the promised ‘Long Term Economic Plan’. For Labour, it meant re-framing the entire debate into one where the marker of economic success was not in the structural growth of the economy at a macro level, but a tangible improvement in the lives of ordinary people. And in this area- of bettering living standards and improving people’s personal prospects- they consistently rate higher than the Tories. 

The campaigns have been unsettled by the growing spectre of the SNP across the border in the case of Labour, and for the Conservatives, the inability to reduce the share of the UKIP vote to below 10%, thereby punishing them in vital swing seats. But leaving these problems aside, one of the key reasons why both parties have firmly consolidated around 33-35% of the vote, yet have been unable to make sufficient breakthroughs out of this margin, is precisely because of their campaign strategies.

The Conservatives have done enough to convince a portion of the electorate that they are the party of economic competency and fiscal discipline, yet have still been unable to convince enough voters that, if elected for a second term, they can deliver on raising living standards. Similarly, Labour have done enough to persuade a section of voters that they are the party that understands their concerns over the cost of living, the NHS and delivering a fairer society, yet have still been unable to convince enough people that they have a credible plan for delivering fiscal discipline.

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Each party has fortified its core support by appealing with very distinct messages, yet has failed to make the necessary inroads with voters whose priorities differ from their own. Such distinct political messages are only useful insofar as they can deliver a parliamentary majority in the ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system. With the Conservative vote fragmenting in England, and Labour joining the Tories on the funeral pyre of political parties in Scotland, it simply isn’t enough to sure up a core vote that cannot deliver an electoral victory.

It is this realisation that has made this week, with the release of the Party manifestos, so interresting. For the Conservatives this move could be potentially decisive in delivering their campaign director’s (Lynton Crosby) long-promised ‘cross-over’ period, where the polls will finally give momentum to the Tories. Up until this point in the election, both parties have largely stuck to their original campaigning strategy. Labour have continued to argue how they will deliver better living standards and create a fairer society, by focussing on their policies to abolish “exploitative” zero- hour contracts, raising the minimum wage and abolishing the  ‘Non-Dom’ tax status for British residents.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have focussed on continued economic success (delivered by none other than that ever so helpful ‘Long Term Economic Plan’) such as the fall in unemployment and the rate of economic growth. This has been complemented by gimmicks such as the newspaper letter, signed by over 100 business leaders in support for their economic policy and the startling (albeit totally misleading) revelation that Labour would raise taxes on ordinary families by up to three thousand pounds. Both campaigns have simply established that each party is strong on their respective issues, but has done little to shift the momentum either way.

However, this could all very well change within the next few days. Labour’s manifesto was anchored in their primary cause to appear fiscally responsible; shown in their promise to balance the current budget and having a “triple lock” on their spending plans, thereby ensuring that they do not make a single unfunded spending commitment. The pinnacle, perhaps, of Labour’s new fiscally responsible tone is Ed Milibands’ personal pledge, on the front cover of the ‘The Mirror’, to commit to no extra borrowing in the next Parliament. The Tories, conversely, focussed on delivering a “good life” to the people of Britain. Emphasising not their plans for fiscal control, but rather a huge set of financial commitments- including an extra 8 billion pounds of funding for the NHS, legislation to take people who work 30 hours a week on the minimum wage out of tax, and pledging to provide 30 hours of free childcare a week. Labour is presenting themselves as a party of fiscal responsibility and the Conservatives as one that can deliver higher living standards. Perhaps this reversal in message and tone is best encapsulated in the sight of Ed Balls openly criticising George Osborne for failing to come clean on his fiscal commitment to spend more money on the NHS.

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Will these new strategies work? Perhaps. There is, however, a huge amount of credibility on the line should it fail.