‘The Labour Campaign, 2015: some educated guesses’, Political Studies Association Media Briefing, 24 March 2015

Labour will:

  • Focus as much as possible on measures contained in three of its five rather vague pledges – particularly on its popular (if not necessarily workable or sensible) offers on university tuition fees (a heat seeking missile aimed directly at those tempted to drift back to the Lib Dems or over to the Greens), on energy prices, on zero-hours contracts, on apprenticeships, on subsidised childcare, on smaller class sizes and, of course, on the NHS. On the latter, expect to hear a lot about ‘joining up care from home to hospital’ as well as more doctors and nurses with ‘time to care’. Labour, after all, can’t afford to be all doom and gloom – ‘over-delivering’ is all very well once you get into government, but too much ‘under-promising’ and you may not make it back there in the first place. Whether the public will warm to the words ‘better plan’ as they are repeated again and again (and again), remains to be seen.
  • Concentrate its attack operation on a) ‘the extreme cuts George Osborne doesn’t want you to know about’ and b) the apparent threat posed to the Health Service (notwithstanding its currently high public satisfaction levels) by another five years of Tory government and by UKIP, whose views on the issue supposedly prove it’s ‘more Tory than the Tories’. At the constituency rather than at the national level, transport – for which read the daily misery suffered by commuters – may also feature. Whatever, expect to hear the word ‘extreme’ as much as the words ‘better plan’. Extra points will be awarded to frontbenchers using them in the same sentence or two.
  • Point out, on the economy, that any recovery has not made up for the decline in living standards suffered by ‘the average family’ since 2010 and is only likely to benefit ‘the few’ rather than ‘the many’. Labour has no choice but to try and re-frame the economy in this way and, although evidence (admittedly from the US) shows that this rarely works for challengers, these are exceptional times: governments don’t normally contrive to preside over such a long-lasting stagnation in real wages.
  • As far as possible, avoid talking about issues ‘owned’ by other parties, most obviously immigration (UKIP) and cutting welfare to cut the deficit (the Tories). Political scientists have long argued that elections are essentially about ‘selective emphasis’ – about parties talking past each other rather than engaging with each other, about parties trying to up the salience of ‘their’ issues and downplaying their opponents’. For good or ill, this one will be no different. True, ‘balancing the books’ and ‘controls on immigration’ are, respectively, number one and number four of Labour’s five pledges. Stressing that every one of its spending commitments is fully costed and fully funded, and that it is promising to eliminate the deficit on current spending by the end of the next parliament, is important. But, like the promise to crack down on migrant benefits and exploitation, its primary purpose is to eliminate the negative – to close down debate by showing that Labour ‘gets it’ on the deficit, not to open up a new front.
  • Carry on with its pink bus road-trip, the novelty value of which seems to be creating local media buzz and mobilising activists, even if its impact on women voters – where Labour hopes to press home its advantage among the young and early middle-aged – is less certain.
  • Maintain and, where possible, improve on its voter contact operation in the marginals, worrying far less about winning back seats in ‘the South’ than in other (far less media-sexy but far more electorally fruitful) parts of England (including London as well as the North West and the Midlands), which often decide elections and where its prospects are generally brighter. Michael Ashcroft’s extensive constituency-level polling suggests that Labour’s belief that it has a better ‘ground game’ than the Tories, and that it can counter their money with its membership, is not always borne out in reality. That said, Ashcroft’s polling does suggest that Labour’s baseline activity is slightly higher, implying that the shift of resources out of London and into local organising presided over by General Secretary Iain McNicol may well have paid off. The release of trade unionists to help the party during the campaign itself will boost it further. It is also worth noting that, judging by research on constituency donations (by Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and Dave Cutts), the party is better than its Conservative counterpart at channelling them to where they are needed.
  • Mount what looks like a largely pointless rear-guard action to save seats in Scotland when it the party would arguably be better advised to cut its losses and divert resource to English marginals where it does stand a chance. Parties aren’t, however, wholly rational actors – and, even if they were, the Scottish Labour Party isn’t simply a branch operation that the UK Head Office can wind down in order to use cash and manpower more efficiently elsewhere. How much headspace should be taken up by fighting what looks like a losing battle north of the border can’t help but be an issue, however. Douglas Alexander may have to decide early on whether he’s going to do a Chris Patten and sacrifice his seat for the greater good of the party.
  • Try to get to the media to acknowledge that, whatever the common wisdom – assiduously promoted (for obvious reasons) by the Conservatives – who gets to form the next government (or even who gets to have first go at trying to form it) is determined not by who emerges on 8 May with most seats in the Commons but by who stands the best chance of avoiding defeat in a motion on a putative Queen’s Speech. Given that UKIP is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats, and if it really is true that the DUP and the Lib Dems could go either way, then Miliband stands a serious chance of becoming Prime Minister even if Labour wins fewer seats (let alone votes) than the Tories.

Labour won’t:

  • Be drawn any further on spending cuts that it might make. Those it will wheel out (for instance, scrapping police and crime commissioner elections) are clearly inadequate to the task, but are at least familiar and easy to understand. Moreover research suggests that most people cannot get their head around figures once the millions slide into the billions (or even when they don’t). Whether this will allow Ed Balls to escape the need to find replacement sources of revenue to fund Labour’s tuition fee and childcare promises now that George Osborne has pinched his plans on high-value pensions and bank taxes, who knows?
  • Go as far as some might like to promote the idea of a team by pushing frontbenchers to the fore while Miliband plays deep. This isn’t his style, and it would look too like what it was – an admission that he can’t hope to compete with Cameron on leadership. Whether the party can prevent potential leadership contenders beginning to freelance and show their paces should it look like Labour is heading for certain defeat is another matter.
  • Let go entirely of the accusation that Cameron is too scared to debate Miliband head-to-head, even though no-one now retains the hope that the accusation will somehow prompt the PM to change his mind.
  • Match Tory attacks on Miliband personally with its own coordinated ad hominem attack onCameron. Even though there is scope for one (the PM’s lack of grip on detail; his continually appeasement of his backbenchers; his lack of capacity and success in foreign affairs; the fact that he supposedly doesn’t know how the other half lives etc., etc.), Labour seems to have concluded that it should camp on the (relatively) high ground on this one – or at least to do all it can to avoid making the election about leadership.
  • Fret quite as much as it used to about the print media, even though it recognises its continuing power to set the broadcasters’ agenda. For one thing, the majority of newspapers are a lost cause (and have been since Miliband argued for Leveson-style statutory underpinning). For another, declining circulation (as well as increased attention paid to research on its limited effects) means that its spell, even if it hasn’t been completely broken, has (decades after it should have done), has at least begun to wear off.
  • Publicly acknowledge the full extent of any latent or manifest threat on the part of the Greens orUKIP – not because the party is complacent about such threats but because it has no intention of providing those parties with free publicity. Cue plenty of ‘I’m not here to talk about the Greens/UKIP, they can speak for themselves, I’m here to talk about Labour’s policies on…(etc., etc).’
  • Worry as much as people think about matching the Tories with clever on-line (and off-line) ads designed, as much as anything else, to so enrage your opponents that they end up talking about the issues which you, rather than they, own. Labour is more than capable of doing this – witness its ‘cut to the bone’ campaign launched at the end of last week. But much of its digital spend will be on below-the-radar direct contacts with targets and prospects to drum up both support and donation – although the ads can, of course, be usefully recycled for those, too.
  • Admit that it actually needs UKIP to do reasonably (but not too) well – at or near ten per cent would do nicely – in order a) to nick a few marginals off the Tories and b) to help the Lib Dems defend some of their seats against Conservative challengers. By the same token, Labour knows (but won’t say) that, while it will be taking take no prisoners when fighting the Lib Dems in the north, it badly needs them to hang on in the south against Tory opposition. The question of whether it tacitly promotes tactical voting by Labour supporters in those seats is a tricky one. It makes sense; but it will be a big ask. Moreover, many would argue that, in order to avoid the scenario where Labour wins more seats but fewer votes than the Conservatives, the party should campaign for every vote it can get, no matter where.
  • Admit that, although it seems unlikely it won’t achieve some sort of swing (the Tories, after all, will struggle to improve on their vote share in 2010 and Labour should poll around 31 per cent at worst), it has very little chance of winning more than around 280 seats or so. This is obviously nowhere near what it needs for a bare overall majority, let alone a comfortable one.
  • Go any further than it has done on which parties it will consider entering into a coalition or confidence and supply arrangements with. Given that, on paper at least, Labour has more options in this respect, it would be foolish to throw away that advantage by ruling any of them out unnecessarily. Attempts by the media to insist that ‘the electorate has a right to know’ (etc., etc.) will be relentlessly parried with the same standard formulations that have been used, perfectly effectively, by their European counterparts for decades: ‘Let’s wait for the voters to deliver their verdict before getting into hypothetical discussions’ (etc., etc.).
  • Lay out a list of ‘red lines’ – policies which it will not compromise on during any negotiations – unless, like refusing to scrap Trident, they are well-worn no-brainers. Maximum flexibility is the watchword. Attempts by the media to reduce it by demanding which policies are negotiable and which are not will be relentlessly parried with the same standard formulations that have been used, perfectly effectively, by their European counterparts for decades.
  • Talk up its chances of defeating Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam too much, except of course in the constituency itself (expect plenty of ‘can’t win here’ from both sides); but it will work like mad, with the help of lots of students, to do decapitate him – not least because doing so could materially alter the ideological complexion of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary party, trigger the election of a more Labour-friendly acting leader, and therefore mean Ed Miliband has a better chance of persuading them (providing the arithmetic doesn’t point the other way) to put him, rather than David Cameron, into Downing Street.

[A revised and edited version of this post was published on 2nd April at https://theconversation.com/five-things-labour-will-do-in-this-campaign-and-five-things-it-definitely-wont-39662]

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