This week marked the start of the unofficial General Election campaigns of the three main parties and already some are fatigued at the prospect of 120 days on the road. Though the outcome is as unpredictable as it has ever been in modern times, it is increasingly apparent that this will be a six-party election: one that holds promise for what were previously the smaller, regional and single-issue parties with a strong likelihood that no single party will command a majority in Parliament. Nevertheless, the economy, health and immigration remain at the top of the political agenda and will be the key issues on which the election will be fought.
At Insight Public Affairs we have published our 2015 Political Preview, our annual forward-look which sets out how we believe the parties will plan for and approach the coming months, amidst such uncertainty and across a number of policy areas. The mainstream parties in particular have reverted to familiar territory, hammering home tried and tested messages on the back of relatively negative, trench warfare-style, campaigning to ensure cut-through with the electorate. We know the Conservatives will be wanting to position themselves as capable stewards of the economy while simultaneously attempting to face down persistent pressure from the UK Independence Party (Ukip) about the issue of Britain's membership of the EU and the directly related one of immigration from Member States. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, will attempt to cast themselves as the party of the centre ground. Nick Clegg's General Election team, appointed this week, will argue that they can once again act as a junior partner, but this time a more credible and experienced one, able to support and temper a post-May 2015 coalition with either a heart or a spine to their prospective suitors. The party will nevertheless be aiming to limit the 'toxic damage' of a five-year partnership with the Conservatives in order to retain a proportion of its key seats. The Liberal Democrats will attempt to achieve this through publicising ever more points of policy differentiation between themselves and their Coalition partners over the coming months: the unity displayed in the Rose Garden in May 2010, becoming an ever more long distant and very faded memory.
Ed Miliband, meanwhile, leads Labour into the New Year with a small but consistent lead in the polls, though doubts remain over his prime ministerial appeal and his party's economic credibility. Labour will seek to paint itself as the guardian of the NHS and as an administration-in-waiting that is committed to removing the deficit year-on-year to balance the books within a reasonable timeframe. Although it is likely that the Conservatives will win the popular vote, Labour could still scrape through with a greater number of seats. Those in the red corner, however, will also have to ensure they do not receive too much of a battering north of the border (where Labour faces losing a significant number of seats to the Scottish Nationalists) and manage to retain the core support the party currently enjoys in English coastal and northern constituencies, where Ukip and the Green Party pose the biggest threats.
Potentially holding the balance of power are the smaller parties that could feasibly support any Conservative or Labour-led coalition, giving the former a political weight out of all proportion to their electoral one. Whether or not the Conservatives can rely on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, or whether Labour can command a rainbow pact of SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green MPs, will rest on behind-the-scenes negotiations and horse-trading in the run-up to and in the immediate aftermath of the General Election on Thursday 7 May. In 2010, a Coalition was wrapped up in five days. This time around, the wider breadth of potential political alignments could well delay the formation of a new administration for a considerably longer period, given the tighter numbers that are expected. If a minority government results, then minimal legislation will be introduced and, regardless of the eventual hue of the next administration, more defeats inflicted by its own backbenchers might reasonably be anticipated.
With four months still to go until polling day, it is important for the parties not to get too carried away with early campaign fever, leaving the electorate uninterested and disillusioned. With a second snap election a very real and distinct possibility, the parties need to do all they can to maintain the attention and interest of voters.