THE BLOG

Will Labour Be Able to Move Beyond the NHS?

13/01/2015 11:12 GMT | Updated 13/03/2015 09:59 GMT

With the General Election campaign now considered to have officially started, the parties are already mapping out their territory. There are few surprises and are unlikely to be any over the coming months but for Labour the challenge is particularly acute. The party knows that the NHS could be a winning issue for it but can it move beyond the NHS and onto other issues?

The widely ridiculed 'Campaigning Against UKIP' document released in November 2014 showed that the party wants to use the NHS not just at the national level but also on the doorstep. The party believes, and this backed up by polling, that in many UKIP targets areas, 'immigration.... is not necessarily the key local issue'. Instead the focus in discussions with potential UKIP voters should be on the NHS, local GP services etc. These discussions have the best chance, they believe, of bringing voters back to Labour. The party can regain the voters trust by relying on the NHS.

Since the election campaign kicked off at the start of January, the party has focused almost its entire efforts on the NHS. It's poster, speeches, and calls by Andy Burnham for an 'A&E crisis summit' are all aiming to grab the initiative, especially from the Conservative Party, and get the campaign off to a good start. It could though mean that they peak too soon.

The winter 'crisis' will pass and voters will lose trust in Labour if they only hear about the NHS. It would also provide a very obvious line of criticism of Labour by the other parties.

Whilst the 'Campaigning Against UKIP' document used polling that showed the party's lead on the NHS, it also showed how it fails to lead on many other issues. At best they are level pegging with the Conservatives on most issues, for some, such as unemployment, they have a slim lead, and for others, most notably managing the economy, they are way behind the Conservatives.

So the question is what room does the party leadership to move the agenda and show that they are not a single issue party, the NHS?

The campaigning paper was widely criticised, not least by Damian McBride in a telling blog post. He rightly pointed to the problem of quotes being taken out of context and the need to ensure that such documents are written and re-written extensively before being issued (if issued at all). The briefing of such documents is also critical as well. Words such as 'salience' and 'weaponise' were used in the briefing for that document.

So the paper, in effect, showed the party's utter reliance on the NHS. Across other issues - leadership, the economy, deficit reduction, immigration, Europe - Labour is not, according to polls, in the lead.

The Labour leadership needs to map out a campaign that starts to land some blows quickly on other issues as well. Housing could be one area as is education but only on housing is Labour's lead substantial and whether either of them are real election issues remains to be seen.

Unless the strategy is keep Ed Miliband off our screens and strengthen the future leadership credentials of Andy Burnham then the party needs to land blows against the Conservatives soon on other issues. The Conservatives don't want to talk too much the NHS and want to get the agenda onto their territory, especially the economy.

So far they have issued a poster on the economy, criticised Labour's spending commitment with the use of Treasury figures, and have given further commitment to the Northern Powerhouse. They have also been keen to give screen time to a number of Cabinet members, not just a limited few as in Labour's case so far.

It has to be hoped that Labour isn't waiting for the Greek general election or just some adverse economic figures to give their campaign momentum in the future. They have to make their own luck and put the Conservatives on the ropes. It is a high risk strategy simply to go hard and continuously hard on one issue.

Miliband's 'cost of living crisis' did make headway as did criticisms of the energy companies and the banks (although that now feels a bit too 2010). However, themes can take time to develop and become part of the political lexicon. Potentially even longer to become fixed in the minds of voters. So there may not be the time to develop these in the heat, however tepid, of an election campaign.

Labour may already have limited their room for manoeuvre but they need to start opening other lines of campaigning as a matter of urgency.