John McTernan: 2015 election will be hard to call

A boom in house prices would be bad news for the government. Picture: Rob McDougall
A boom in house prices would be bad news for the government. Picture: Rob McDougall
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With a year to go, the political parties are stepping up preparations, and Ed Miliband’s Labour has the least to fear, writes John McTernan

IN EXACTLY a year’s time there will be a new government for the UK. Our fixed-term parliament means that we know the election date – the first Thursday in May. The day after, Friday 8, will be when the dust starts to settle. What will the landscape look like?

In many ways, this is the least predictable General Election for a generation. Precedent is no help. On the one hand, no post-war governing party has ever increased its share of the vote over a full parliamentary term – bad news for the Tories. On the other, no party has bounced back within one cycle after a defeat to win a majority – bad news for Labour. But then again, this is the first ever peace-time coalition, so we are in totally uncharted territory.

What, then, do we know for sure? First, the economy will be all-important. In the end the wallet and the purse determine most elections, and this will be no different. The contest will, though, be between competing frames.

The Tories will prosecute an apparently simple argument: the economy is working, don’t let Labour wreck it. Labour lost that argument a long time ago and will not contest it now. Instead they will follow the time honoured political tradition of changing the subject. Ed Miliband will say – “I feel your pain”. This is a titanic clash of frames: head v heart, logic v emotion and empathy. Ed’s bet is simple – no voter will thank Cameron for the biggest fall in living standards for over a century. But they will like Labour’s promises on energy bill freezes, lower rents and more house-building.

Second, it will be a contest of two futures. For the Tories, at its most positive it is about a pro-business, pro-growth UK that’s open for business.

Not, in many ways, different from the position of most post-war governments of any party. The contrast Cameron and Osborne want is with a left-wing Labour Party which they define as anti-business and anti-enterprise.

There is, however, a two-fold problem for the Tories. On the one hand it is really hard to generate a red scare about Miliband. Earnest? For sure. Marxist? No way. On the other, now is not the time for a 1980s revival – business good, unions bad is not what the public think any more. Many more voters think that big business is a threat than are scared of union leaders like Unite’s Len McCluskey. And they have good reason – the Great Recession was made on Wall Street not Downing Street.

Miliband was mocked for his 2010 speech where he pointed out there are good businesses and bad businesses. But he struck a chord with ordinary people. Cameron is being foolhardy in backing business come what may. “Capitalism, right or wrong!” is a cry at odds with a sceptical public. Miliband is using the proposed Pfizer takeover of AstraZeneca to promote a kind of economic patriotism and a capitalist realism that Thatcher would have recognised. It is a mark of how far adrift from their moorings the modern Tory party has become that they are the ideologues on this critical issue.

Third, it will be a grind. There are 364 long days to fill in each party’s election grid. There will be stunts. Fake feuds between the coalition partners. Faux outrage. Re-heated re-announcements. Rinse and repeat. The fear of the government will be that events beyond their control will overwhelm them. One of the biggest is an interest rate rise. Former chancellors Norman Lamont and Alistair Darling are both warning that there is the danger of a housing boom.

Voices off are one thing, but what if the Bank of England decides to act? So many families are stretched financially that the smallest increase in mortgages could be enough to tip them over the edge. The other is an NHS winter crisis. This is what did for the Tories under Thatcher and Major – patients on trolleys in corridors would be disastrous for Cameron, as they would be the emblem of public service cuts. For Labour, the nightmare is economic growth quickening, incomes rising swiftly.

But in the end the normal laws of politics will be decisive. As the election approaches, the centre of gravity shifts from parliament to party HQ. Both Labour and the Tories have excellent professional teams. Labour has the edge in what is called “field organisation” – agents and organisers are working on the ground in over 100 seats already. The Tories have far more money to spend and will use it ruthlessly in paid advertising.

Both have imported professionals from abroad. The Tories have Australia’s Lynton Crosby and his colleague Mark Textor who is one of the best pollsters in the world. Labour has recruited Obama’s David Axelrod who will inject authority and message discipline into their machine. But while the big parties fight for tactical advantage, the result of the election will probably be determined by the two minor parties – the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. The Lib Dems’ fate is easily described.

In 2010 Clegg sold sincerity to the public. He broke his word on tuition fees and broke his party. They have lost votes irreversibly to Labour and will lose seats to them and the Tories.

Ukip is the wild card. It takes votes from the Tories – which is bad enough – but they are also dragging Cameron from the centre ground, which is worse for him. Elections in Britain are always won from the centre, but Nigel Farage has derailed the Tories.

So, the centre-left is united behind Labour and the centre-right are split between three parties – the Tories, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats. This is a massive advantage for Miliband. Labour is currently on 35-38 per cent in the polls, a historically low level but in 2005 Tony Blair got a 65-seat majority with a similar figure. The reason? Ukip took 2,000 votes from the Tories in every seat. It was enough. No-one doubts Farage will raise that level next year. It’s advantage Miliband.