We love the NHS! Well, we love the economy! Repeat, ad nauseam, for the next four months

‘We may be heartless but we will look after your money’ is the subliminal Tory message

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The Independent Online

That was the election campaign right there. That is about all we are going to get. Repeat for four months. Labour says: “We love the NHS”. Conservatives say: “We can run the economy”. And the other parties do their funny little sideshows. Ed Miliband says he wants to talk to millions of people on the doorstep. Millions of people pretend they’re not in.

A curious-looking line-up of five Tory politicians publishes a dossier adding up things they say Labour wants to spend your money on. Miliband says they’ve made it up – “completely false” were his precise words – and most normal people change channels. The few who don’t say to themselves that Miliband is absolutely right or totally wrong, depending on what they thought in the first place, and nobody is any the wiser.

To most people, this is all depressing and boring. To me, it is depressing and fascinating, but that is because I am interested in how politics works. I was intrigued by the poster wars over the weekend. If you can bear with me for a moment, the Tories published a poster with a picture of a road on it, which said: “Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy.” But it also said, “The deficit halved”, to which Fraser Nelson of The Spectator took exception.

Then on Sunday, Labour published a document that put together all the targets that the NHS has missed (not that the NHS has targets since Labour’s “top-down targets” were abolished in 2010, but here were all the “objectives” that had not been met), together with a poster that said: “The Tories want to cut spending on public services back to the levels of the 1930s, when there was no NHS.”

Whereas I thought the Tory claim to have halved the deficit was fair, using the most sensible measure of the deficit, namely as a share of the economy, I thought the Labour poster was dishonest. The implication was that the Tory spending plans would not only cut the NHS but that they threatened its very existence. Given that Conservative spending plans actually provide for small increases in NHS spending, even taking inflation into account, this is wild scaremongering.

But where it gets interesting (no, really) is how the opposing parties responded. It was Nelson, the editor of a Conservative magazine, who was loudest in his condemnation of the Tory poster, not Ed Balls. And while I got worked up about the Labour poster, the response of Tory HQ seemed mild and off the point: “Ed Miliband has no economic plan and so would put the entire NHS at risk.” But Labour is accusing you lot of wanting to shut down the whole thing and go back to shoeless children not being able to afford treatment, I thought. Why don’t you give them what for?

The parties were responding politically rather than emotionally to attacks on them. Balls did not join in Nelson’s condemnation of the Tories for “telling porkies” because he knows perfectly well that the deficit has been halved, and he wants to portray George Osborne as a dangerous and deep cutter, not an incompetent one.

Meanwhile, the Tories did not want to argue about their plans for the NHS, because most people prefer Labour if the question is the NHS, so they tried to change the question to the economy – which ultimately pays the taxes that pay for the NHS – on which most people prefer them. “We may be heartless but we will look after your money” is the subliminal Tory message for the next four months.

Yesterday’s engagements were similarly inconclusive and unsatisfying for those of us who are engaged with politics. Labour hasn’t made any spending promises, or, if it has by mistake, they are inoperative because Balls has said so. The Tories have therefore wasted a huge amount of taxpayers’ money getting civil servants to add up things they say that Labour has promised to produce a large figure – I can’t even be bothered to look it up – so that they can say Labour wants to tax, spend and borrow.

There’s a grain of truth there, which is that Labour’s plan is to cut public spending more slowly, and Labour’s instincts tend to be to tax, spend and borrow more than a Conservative government would, but basically it is, as Miliband says, “completely false”.

Not that Miliband gets much credit for being right because he had so little positive to say himself. What little he had, he read off the autocue again, to make sure he didn’t forget immigration or the deficit, but he couldn’t answer obvious questions, such as: what is Labour’s policy on tuition fees? We will have a policy by the time of the election manifesto, he said. In other words, Chuka Umunna (universities spokesman) and Balls (shadow Chancellor) haven’t agreed yet. With less than three months to the dissolution of parliament. Now, that is interesting.

But possibly not to normal people, who will mostly get on with their lives until a few days before the election when, if they haven’t made up their minds long ago, they will consider proposition A (“Labour loves the NHS”), proposition B (“Tories run the economy”) and proposition C (“sideshow”), and then decide.

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