John McTernan: A long run-up to a General Election

The government has got the economy growing, and it is not going to be quiet about it, writes John McTernan

George Osborne claims a Labour government would be an economic risk. Picture: Reuters
George Osborne claims a Labour government would be an economic risk. Picture: Reuters

The frantic pace of campaigning continues. Announcements. Abuse. Headlines. Dividing lines. No, not the referendum, but the 2015 General Election campaign. The past fortnight has given us the first taste of what the next 15 months will be all about. 

The first thing to be clear about is that the economy is recovering. We will all very, very shortly get sick and tired of hearing Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians boasting that the growth in GDP shows the success of their policies. But the fact remains that the return to growth – and strong growth at that – is an unqualified good and should be welcomed by all. Every extra 0.1 per cent of GDP is misery lifted from families and communities. Fast growth and falling unemployment will be the mantra of the coalition.

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The drumbeat of good news will – Tory strategists hope – drown out any noises of discontent. If the public’s eyes are firmly on the prize, the thinking goes, all else will melt away. It is a strong argument, and the ground has been laid well for it. Last week saw the Tory machine crank itself back into action. Not yet back to its best, but disciplined and forceful enough to worry thoughtful members of Labour’s frontbench. People who follow politics like others follow football will already have worked out that “long-term economic plan”, like “hard-working families”, has been tested to death. Those slogans and the strapline “Labour, a risk to jobs, a risk to the recovery, a risk to the future of Britain’s security” – trialled by George Osborne on Tuesday and relished by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions – essentially argue that the gain has been worth the pain, but it could still be squandered.

The trumpeting of economic good news is not merely intended to bring voters back to the Tories, it also aims brutally and politically to skewer Labour. On the one hand, Ed Miliband cannot afford to run down the recovery, on the other while Ed Balls can justifiably argue that the recovery shouldn’t have taken so long, he is – in the end – arguing a counter-factual. The Tory hope is to cement Labour’s reputation as poor economic managers. They have been helped immensely in this task by the current Labour leadership’s inability to give a measured account and a reasoned defence of the last Labour government, in which they played senior and significant roles. It is an irony indeed, given the importance of the economic argument to the outcome of the election, that Labour’s most persuasive and reassuring economic story-teller – Alistair Darling – is relegated to the sideshow of the referendum.

What is Labour’s response? The key is that Miliband is refusing to play Cameron’s game. It’s an important political rule that if you are losing an argument then you should change the terms of the debate – as the Americans say, if you can’t win at chess use the board to play chequers. Ed Miliband has no interest in fighting on his weakest ground – the question of who is the best economic manager – so he has a three-step strategy. First neutralise the economy. That part of the plan was executed by Ed Balls last weekend when he committed Labour to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament – and not to borrow more to sustain current expenditure. This was designed to shut down a major concern for voters – they have always believed that Labour governments can spend money, they are just unsure whether Labour can actually generate the wealth in the first place. The move by Balls to eye-wateringly tight spending limits is crucial to his credibility. The parameters are now set for his Zero Based Spending Review which is being led by Chris Leslie who now needs to produce some eye-catching savings.

Step two, is to keep driving the national conversation. This Ed Balls did in the same speech when he promised to bring back the 50p rate of tax for incomes over £150,000 a year. This was, Balls argued, essential to ensure that the richest pay their fair share to bring down the deficit. This wrong-footed the Tories as badly as Miliband’s promise of an energy price freeze last September. They wheeled out some well-heeled CEOs – mainly Tory donors – to argue that even the prospect of this rate was enough to kill the recovery stone-dead. This argument lasted right up until its first encounter with an opinion poll. So by Prime Minister’s Questions Time Cameron was boasting to Miliband about just how hard he was squeezing the rich. This builds on Ed Miliband’s most important, yet most unremarked, achievement – by most measures he is the most successful post-war opposition leader.

Since he stopped British military intervention in Syria last summer almost all significant government measures are a response to his policy proposals. Think of how often ministers now ask their Labour shadows – what would you do? Words that would never have been uttered by Ted Heath or John Major, let alone Thatcher or Blair.

Finally, Miliband ties it all back to his essential frame – “the cost of living crisis.” Saying, Dirty Harry-like: “You’ve gotta ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel better off?’ Well, do ya, punk?” This step is lifted directly from the Obama playbook. Mitt Romney never lost his poll lead as a better economic manager, but Obama changed the question to “who will fight hardest for the middle class” and he won that contest handsomely. Early on Miliband had the brilliant phrase “squeezed middle” which has rather foolishly been ditched in favour of the over-clever “One Nation”.

This is a pretty even match. The facts, on balance, favour the government. The feelings, in contrast, favour Labour. The problem for both sides is not to bore us. Campaign professionals use the phrase “long campaign” to describe the three months prior to the “short”, four-week campaign. We face a period five times as long as normal. Governing is over, can campaigning inspire and excite us for that long?