Although the 2015 General Election seems a long way off, the battle lines are starting to become clearer.
Prime Minister David Cameron has issued a full-throated appeal to what he described as Britain’s “strivers”, those people who work hard and do the right thing. Cameron knows that a Conservative majority simply cannot be delivered without blue-collar voters. More particularly, he believes that victory will require the support of women in working families. The benefits cap is designed to assuage the feeling held by many voters that they struggle on while many benefit recipients get something for nothing.
Mr Cameron’s message on the deficit, while undoubtedly bitter medicine, is meant to show that only he can provide the tough leadership needed see the country through the economic dark times. The light is provided by school reform: his and Michael Gove’s to re-educate Britain back into contention in the global race. Cameron hopes this combination of leadership, fairness and hope for the future will be enough to persuade the strivers to back him.
Labour Leader Ed Miliband, meanwhile, intends to put living standards at the heart of his election campaign. He will try to demonstrate that the Coalition has failed to improve the lives of Britain’s hard-working families. This is smack in the centre ground of British politics and he would be well advised to stay there.
Mr Miliband intends to use his One Nation rhetoric to paint the Tories as out of touch ‘toffs’ with no understanding of average voters, a toxic association that Conservatives dread. However, Miliband will equally fear the electorate associating his party with the non-working ‘scroungers’. This is exactly why the Chancellor challenged Labour to vote against his plans to limit the increase in benefits.
The challenge for Nick Clegg is to stay relevant. He has worked hard to highlight not only the ‘wins’ his party have achieved, but also how he had reined in some of the Conservatives’ more radical policy suggestions such as freezing benefits or scrapping employment regulations.
His pitch to voters in 2015 will be that the Liberal Democrats are not only tough enough to be in government, but that they also moderate the agenda of both the other two parties. In theory, at least, this pragmatic centrism has electoral appeal.
The failure of boundary changes means Labour now holds a significant advantage. But we know that the party that is most trusted on the economy and whose leaders have the highest ratings will win the next election. The Conservatives still inch ahead in these stakes.
The extension of austerity well into the next Parliament piles further pressure onto Labour. Do they promise to stick to the Coalition’s spending plans and dismay many in their party and the unions? Or, do they promise to tax and spend more? This is the hardest decision that any Opposition leader has to make. Most flunk it.
Cameron and Osborne want to say to the electorate “Britain’s on the right track: don’t turn back”. Labour need to demonstrate that they have learnt their lessons and can be trusted with the economy and public finances once more. This is the fight that will determine the makeup of the next government. It promises to be a long and bitter one.
A longer version of this article can be found in Portland’s Road to the Manifestos, along with further contributions by Michael Portillo and Alastair Campbell, and a guide to the process and people who matter for each of the three main parties.