The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Inside Westminster: Cameron doesn’t look like the compassionate Conservative who won the party leadership

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A Conservative-leaning banker spoke for many on the eve of an election year: he didn’t want to vote Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat, but didn’t know whom to support. Perhaps he wouldn’t vote at all. “The system needs to be knocked down so we can rebuild it,” he said.

If people like him are disenchanted, the challenge facing our mainstream politicians is even bigger than they realise as they try  to engage an electorate that has turned its back on them.

None of the three main parties had a good 2014. Their leaders all survived potential coups by their own party. At least one, and possibly two, of them is likely to be out of their job in 2015.

The Tories had reason to cheer as the economy recovered, but Labour’s decline in the opinion polls did not lift David Cameron’s party. Fear of a “voteless recovery” is very real in Tory land.

A feeling among Tory MPs that their party can beat Ed Miliband kept the Tory wolves from Downing Street’s door. Cameron is the best thing the Tories have. Yet he does not look like the compassionate Conservative who won his party’s leadership nine years ago. To try to stop the haemorrhage of votes to Ukip, he hardened his line on Europe and immigration, but in doing so risked alienating centre-ground voters repelled by a “nasty party” which looks after its rich friends.

Labour’s decline in the opinion polls has not lifted David Cameron’s party (Reuters)

Senior Tory ministers describe the economy as Labour’s “killing fields”. Their appeal to “finish the job” on the deficit is powerful. But George Osborne worried some Tories by overshooting the runway in this month’s Autumn Statement. Deep spending cuts after balancing the nation’s books would take the state’s share of national income to a level not seen since the 1930s.

This threw Labour a much-needed  lifeline. Miliband grabbed it, announcing year-on-year cuts for most Whitehall departments. But he still has ground to make up on leadership and the economy. Labour’s two weaknesses were advertised for the price of one when Miliband forgot  to mention the deficit in his party conference speech. A crisis of confidence  in him by his own party could have toppled him, but Alan Johnson was not willing to take over as leader.

Miliband will make a big speech on “the choice” on the economy in the new year. Then Labour will return to its NHS comfort zone. Somehow, a party that appears to have a “core vote” strategy has alienated many of its core voters. The public doesn’t doubt Labour’s credentials on health. But people worry about its economic credentials. To win power, Labour must spell out some big-ticket spending cuts.

The Lib Dems’ new slogan – to “cut less than the Tories, but borrow less than Labour” – seemed to cut little ice with voters, who do not yet understand what the Lib Dems “have done for us” in the Coalition. Nick Clegg survived losing 11 of his 12 MEPs in the May European elections after snipers on his left flank shot themselves in both feet.

The Deputy Prime Minister battled on, distancing his party further from the Tories. The Lib Dems may avoid the predicted meltdown at next May’s election by targeting their resources and holding 30 of their 57 seats. Although Clegg insists the voters will decide, it became clear this year that most senior Lib Dems would prefer to sup with the Tory devil they know in the hung parliament that looks inevitable after May’s general election.

This was the year in which the normal see-saw of politics changed. For once, Labour and the Tories were both down at the same time. What we used to call the “minor parties” were up, and may well become major players next May by holding the balance of power. Ukip won the European elections and its first two elected MPs. Its momentum seemed unstoppable. Yet in recent weeks, Nigel Farage’s party seemed to revert to being “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, as Mr Cameron once described it. The bad headlines may not dissuade many of those intending to vote Ukip.

The Scottish National Party lost the independence referendum in September, but somehow emerged as the winner. It has retained disenchanted former Labour supporters and could deal a hammer blow to Miliband’s prospects of becoming prime minister. A revitalised Green Party snapped away at Labour’s left heel, and could take votes away from Labour in key marginals.

Nigel Farage's Ukip won the European elections and its first two elected MPs

The rise of Ukip, SNP and the Greens makes an already unpredictable election impossible to call. Some fully-detached voters, like that Tory-leaning banker, may switch back to a mainstream party when a choice between two prime ministers looms. In their desperation, the two biggest parties will go negative. “Vote Ukip, get Miliband” for the Tories (while portraying Miliband as weak and weird) will compete with Labour’s “Vote SNP, get Cameron”. Hardly very inspiring. For many people, 2015 will bring a choice between the lesser of two evils.

But voters should not fall for the hype that the mainstream parties are “all the same.” They are not. They sometimes give that impression as they try to cover up their weaknesses. Labour won’t shout about it, but would spend about £40bn more than the Tories to protect public services. The Tories would make severe cuts to put the nation £23bn in the black and hand back £7.2bn in tax cuts. The Lib Dems would anchor a Tory or Labour-led government in the centre ground. It will be a “big-choice” election. People should ignore Russell Brand’s view that “there’s nothing worth voting for” and make their choice.