U.K. Embarks on Long Election as Campaign for 2015 StartsThomas Penny and Robert Hutton
British voters are getting a taste of what Americans have long been used to -- an 18-month election campaign -- and even Prime Minister David Cameron says it will be boring.
The strategies are in place and voters in key swing districts are already being bombarded with messages the parties hope will win votes on May 7, 2015. For Cameron and his Conservatives, that means focusing on the economy, highlighting growth that’s outstripping many of Britain’s European neighbors and arguing that the opposition Labour Party would reverse his government’s cuts in spending.
“People increasingly see we have a plan, we’re sticking to a plan, we’re delivering a plan,” Cameron told reporters as he flew to India on Nov. 13. “And if you’re bored stiff hearing about my plan by 2015, I’ll be very happy.”
Cameron has an early chance to grab voters’ attention next week, when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne makes his Autumn Statement to Parliament. That may mean the announcement of measures aimed at undermining Labour’s stance that it’s the only party serious about tackling voters’ concerns about the cost of living.
While previous prime ministers were able to call an election at 17 working days’ notice, Cameron signed away that privilege in 2010, when parliaments were fixed to five-year terms in the coalition deal with Liberal Democrat Deputy Premier Nick Clegg.
Opinion polls show Labour extending a lead over the Tories in recent weeks as it’s put the spotlight on the cost of living, exemplified by proposals to cap energy prices after inflation-busting increases.
Labour was at 39 percent support to the Tories’ 32 percent and the Liberal Democrats’ 10 percent in a YouGov Plc poll of 1,909 adults conducted Nov. 20-21. That might give Labour a majority in Parliament of more than 80 seats if replicated in the election, according to standard calculations.
Cameron has given Lynton Crosby, an Australian who until now has been his part-time election strategist, a full-time contract. Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, has also been recruited to the Tory team. Meanwhile, Labour have hired a community organizer from Chicago, Arnie Graf.
“The best advice I’d give Britain is to turn off your TV and radio,” Stephen Duprey, a senior adviser on John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 election campaign, said in a telephone interview. “My advice to your politicians is that one of them should run on a ticket of not campaigning until the final month.”
Even so, the premier and other ministers -- and their Labour opposite numbers -- are visiting the marginal constituencies, as they’re known in Britain, that will determine the next government.
On Oct. 24, Cameron traveled to a European Union summit in Brussels via Yorkshire in the north of England, making a 200-mile (322 kilometers) detour from what’s normally a two-hour train trip from London.
The Conservatives and Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are also making clear the dividing lines between their parties. For the Liberal Democrats, this means citing the Tory policies they’ve blocked; for Cameron it’s meant making clear what he might have done unfettered by his coalition colleagues.
“You sometimes have to make compromises that aren’t in the long-term interest of the country,” the prime minister said on Nov. 14. “The clarity you get from single-party government is better.”
Clegg responded by insisting the Liberal Democrats are serving Britain’s interests by blocking Tory excesses.
“When the Conservatives suggested that employers should be able to fire employees at will, we said: no, we didn’t think that was in the national interest; when they suggested a snoopers charter, we said: no, we didn’t think that was in the national interest; or making profits in state-run and state-funded schools,” Clegg said the same day. “Yes, you need to make compromises, but those compromises are always struck in this coalition government –- certainly by my party -– in the national interest.”
Miliband’s Sept. 24 announcement of his plan to cap energy prices if Labour wins the election is driving the party’s campaigns online and on the doorstep. Labour activists are being encouraged on the party’s website to get involved in community campaigning, knocking on doors and talking to voters to build a positive impression with voters in the runup to 2015.
The predictability of the long campaign will also help the parties keep within the strict spending restrictions that govern British elections, limiting spending to 19.5 million pounds ($31.6 million) in the 12 months before voting. In the past, parties had to be careful not to spend too much in case a snap election was called.
“There will be more of a ramp-up in campaigning in the six months between now and May than you would have seen in previous terms,” Justin Fisher, who teaches politics at London’s Brunel University, said in a telephone interview. “There’s no longer a risk of miscalculating spending if the date of the election shifts.”
Cameron has also said he wants the televised election debates, which were run in the 20 days before polling in 2010, to start earlier.
Last time around, Cameron was hurt by Clegg’s strong performance in the debates and didn’t have time to reassert his own claim to be the fresh young face of British politics in contrast to Labour’s Gordon Brown.
Cameron was asked last weekend to reflect on former Conservative Prime Minister John Major’s success in winning a parliamentary majority in the 1992 general election against Labour’s Neil Kinnock, a feat the current premier failed to replicate in 2010. In doing so, he provided an insight into his plans.
“John Major faced a Labour politician who wanted to tax more, spend more and borrow more, and I face a Labour politician who wants to tax more, spend more and borrow more,” Cameron told reporters. “He produced some posters that said Labour would deliver a double whammy of higher taxes and higher interest rates, and I think I may be able to dust those down.”