Miliband the general leads his troops to war - but on which battleground?

Inside Westminster

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The Independent Online

“This is a day-to-day war now,” Ed Miliband told a private meeting of Labour MPs as the four-month general election campaign began this week.

He said the time for internal debate was over, that he wanted “discipline” rather than “advice” from his backbench troops, and ordered them out on to the doorsteps.

Many Labour MPs – and current Labour voters – believe David Cameron is more likely to be Prime Minister after the 7 May election than Mr Miliband. Yet even the Labour leader’s internal critics, Tony Blair included, realise the time has come to put their loyalty to the Labour tribe first and knuckle down for the election fight.

At the end of the first week of the longest election campaign in modern times, Labour backbenchers are more optimistic than they were at its start. It is one-nil to Labour, although there are still 17 weeks to go. George Osborne’s attack on £20.7bn of “unfunded” Labour spending pledges misfired when Labour denied many items on his list. The NHS crisis which Labour has predicted for months finally became a real one as accident and emergency departments reached a tipping point.

Then David Cameron used the cover of the Paris terrorist attack to wriggle out of the proposed television debates between the party leaders – confirming Westminster’s worst-kept secret. He never had any intention of handing Mr Miliband or Nigel Farage an equal platform. Tory and Labour strategists who pore over opinion polls and focus group discussions know that Mr Miliband comes over a bit weird in 10-second clips on news bulletins, but much better if people see him for 20 minutes.

 

The relentless attacks on Mr Miliband by the Tories and their newspaper allies might work to his advantage if televised debates took place: expectations of him would be low. Labour officials believe the lesson of the first televised debates in 2010, when Nick Clegg starred, is that they initially help the underdog, rather than an outsider such as Mr Farage. Mr Cameron, who is hiding behind the broadcasters’ inexplicable refusal to allow the resurgent Greens to take part, has decided to take a small hit now in the hope that voters will have forgotten by May.

The broadcasters should have the courage to go ahead without the Prime Minister – the “empty chair” strategy – but I doubt they will, fearing legal action and reprisals if the Tories retain power.

Mr Miliband’s talk of “war” was accurate amid the endless claims and counter-claims, pre-buttals and rebuttals by Labour and the Tories. But a few wise heads in both camps wonder whether the two old parties are fighting the last war. In the Tories’ case, they are refighting the last war they won – the 1992 election, when a Tory Prime Minister, John Major, won a majority against another left-leaning Opposition leader not trusted on the economy, Neil Kinnock. Today’s Tories don’t lose sleep over crude, scattergun attacks on Labour’s spending plans, even if some bullets miss the target. A 1992-style “Labour tax bombshell” will be coming to a poster site near you shortly. “Anything that keeps the spotlight on the economy” is the Tory mantra. Tory officials believe that “fear works”.

Last Sunday, Mr Cameron told the BBC’s Andrew Marr he is still a “compassionate Conservative”. But in their desire to paint Labour as spendthrift, the Tories rarely talk these days about “decent public services” as well as a “strong economy”, as they used to. This is a big mistake, since most voters want both, as the Liberal Democrats acknowledge. The Tories’ determination to protect their right flank from Ukip leaves them backing deep spending cuts that could take the “decent” out of public services.

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David Cameron says he is still a “compassionate Conservative” (Getty Images)

In 1992, Labour regarded the NHS as its trump card. Like now, the election race was very close. In the privacy of the polling booth, people’s heads overruled their hearts as they voted for the fiscally tough, competent party rather than the nicer, softer one.

It might happen again on 7 May. As in 1992, Labour looks happier in its NHS comfort zone than when trying to prove its economic credentials. Continuing problems in the health service until polling day would not guarantee a Labour victory. The Tories are right to argue that the NHS is “an economic issue” since the country has got to afford the extra money it undoubtedly needs.

Mr Miliband’s allies deny that Labour is a “one-club golfer” on health. The party’s two other campaigns before May will be about young people and the economy. The strategy is to identify a problem, talk about it and then offer solutions.

On the economy, Labour will focus on the “living standards” agenda Mr Miliband is convinced is as valid as ever. As he puts it, the graphs on George Osborne’s wall might point in the right direction, but “everyday people” are not feeling the recovery’s benefits. The Labour leader’s aim is to deliver a message that reaches what his American adviser David Axelrod calls “the kitchen table”.

Yet many people at that table were surely unimpressed by this week’s traditional “wealth versus health” battle between the two biggest parties. Many will tune out when the Tories claim Labour would crash the economy or when Labour warns that the NHS as we know it would not exist if the Tories win another term.

As voters lose trust in the old duopoly, this might be an election when what they say matters less than what trusted, independent voices say about them – whether its the Institute for Fiscal Studies, or NHS professionals. It could be an election not dominated by two parties but decided by third parties.

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