There are interesting debates going on within the main parties over how they should approach the last few weeks before a General Election. Should they try to appeal to floating voters, seeking to win over the least convinced voters from the other main party and trying to squeeze the Liberal Democrats, or should they seek to please and buttress their core supporters, to make sure they all vote? Do traditional Labour and Conservative voters mean it when they say they might vote for a fringe party that cannot win a single seat, or might stay at home if their party does not do more to please them? Would talking about their concerns make it impossible to win over the floaters needed to secure a majority?
It has always been the case that parties have tended to try to woo the floaters “in the middle” of politics, taking their natural supporters somewhat for granted. Modern pollsters and strategists are right about this. It was also the case, however, that winning parties always tried to change the salience of issues in ways which favoured them, which in part could cut against wooing the “centre ground”. When Conservatives won they usually stressed the importance of the economy, taxation, immigration, Europe, defence, issues where they traditionally had a good lead in the polls. Labour usually stressed public services, especially health and education, and support for minorities, where they often were ahead, even during periods of Conservative government. Blair’s strategy in 1997 when he won was to stress the Labour areas of public service as his main theme, whilst trying to neutralise the economy issue by promising to stick with Conservative spending plans and Conservative income tax levels. Margaret Thatcher won on turning round the economy, allied to a strong message on national security.
My sense of the current public mood is that there is no longer a large group of floating voters in the middle who can be attracted to vote for whichever of the main parties is the most “moderate”. Many more people today think abstention or fringe party voting is an option for them. Fewer think it their civic duty to vote, and fewer want directly to help make the main decision about whether to have a Labour or Conservative government, as they say they do not like either. Many more people are single issue people, strongly preoccuupied by one important matter and judging all political parties by a standard of purity on that issue that no broad coalition party capable of forming a government is likely to match.
In the past, for all the love bombing of the centre, after party cross dressing and all the polling, the approach to the economy has often been the crucial tie breaker. It has been difficult to win an election if a party is widely distrusted on the economy. This election will be, above all else, an election about the economy. I think the two main parties have no choice but to slug it out on that central raft of issues. The economy as an issue encompasses public spending and debt, inflation, taxes, returns for savers, mortgages and house prices, jobs and the business environment.
The public sense that we face a serious debt crisis. Worse still, private sector workers are well into the sharp decline in their living standards which low wage growth and high inflation are now delivering. Public service workers are about to experience the same thing, as the government starts to squeeze public sector pay. There needs to be more debate and more enlightenment for the public on when and how the deficit has to be cut, when and how inflation is brought down, when and how living standards start to rise again, when and how Uk manufacturing can be turned round, when and how our balance of payments is in surplus, when and how the public sector can deliver more for less.
Labour will argue that more borrowing and more money printing is the way to go “to see us through” recession. Conservatives will argue that you cannot have a sustainable recovery without controlling the deficit. So far the markets have been hinting at problems ahead, with a further slide in the pound against the dollar and a further rise in the cost of government borrowing. If the Conservatives are to seal the deal they need to reinforce their messages that we are in a serious mess and they can show us a way out of it. If Labour is to steal the deal they need to explain how they can avoid going the way of Ireland and Greece, and how they are going to get some balance back into a very lop sided and public sector heavy economy.