Longest general election campaign starts now

 

The general election may be 696 days away, but the campaign is already under way. Ed Balls kicked it off with a speech last week in which he talked of the "tough choices" that would face an incoming Labour government in 2015 – including axeing winter fuel payments for the richest pensioners.

Then came the party leader Ed Miliband's pledge to limit welfare spending and a concession that Labour could not reverse the coalition's child benefit cuts for the richest.

The Labour strategy coincided with Nick Clegg's announcement that he was blocking controversial childcare ratio reforms – which can be seen as the latest attempt by the Liberal Democrats to strike out against the Conservatives. Mr Clegg, whose party is languishing on 10 per cent in the polls, fourth behind Ukip, has a lot of work to do.

But so has Labour. The party is the bookmakers' favourite to win. Yet Mr Miliband needs to take 60 seats directly from the Conservatives to secure an outright majority, and it is unusual for governments to serve just a single term.

Mr Miliband was criticised for failing to provide any concrete detail on policy, beyond putting conditions on welfare payments and a cap on spending. But the plan was more about perception than anything else.

Stephen Twigg, the shadow Education Secretary, described last week as "significant" and a sign that Labour was "facing up to the fact that we will have some very tough choices to make if we win in 2015".

Yet many – including Labour MPs – believe that Mr Miliband needs to go further, and change the party's relationship with the unions to convince floating voters that it is ready to govern again.

The Shadow Cabinet is unlikely to endorse this. But Mr Twigg said the party needed to appeal to union members and non-unionised private sector workers. He said: "You've got to have a broad appeal if we're going to win. This is the beginning of a road from now until 2015 that is going to be tough and challenging for us as we determine our priorities."

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