With the polls showing the Conservatives and Labour firmly stuck in neck-and-neck position, they are playing on multiple chessboards in a desperate scramble for votes.
Their latest move has been to publish multitasking manifestos. These seek to attract floating voters, shore up core votes and woo potential coalition partners, all at the same time.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have dressed up as their opposites in their manifestos. For Labour that meant putting the deficit front and centre in a bid to show that the party can be trusted with the public finances.
Labour has declared a commitment to balancing the books since at least 2012, but for one reason or another, its message has not filtered through. To hammer it home, the manifesto includes a budget responsibility lock to ensure that all pledges can be paid for.
The Conservatives ventured into the greener pastures of the Good Life agenda. As he tried to break away from Lynton Crosby’s negative and defensive electoral strategy David Cameron put forward sunny and meritocratic language.
He talked about a buccaneering Britain, where working parents will be given 30 hours of free childcare, where workers on the minimum wage will not pay personal income tax and where the NHS will be miraculously saved by new investment.
Judging by media and political reaction, the two parties’ attempt at political cross-dressing was not entirely successful. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who is trying to position himself as the reasonable and credible choice, dismissed the ploy as “laughable and implausible”.
Fodder for the faithful
If this first ploy fails, these manifestos offer a back up plan – both contain pledges designed to appeal to the party faithful. The Conservatives resurrected the Thatcherite golden classics of the right-to-buy housing policy and tax cuts for the middle classes. It remains a mystery how these promises will be funded but the party is trusted on the economy, so perhaps they can get away with it.
For Labour, the lock of responsibility liberated Miliband to pursue his campaign to address social inequality with a series of commitments on the minimum wage, zero-hours contracts, freezes on energy prices, a cap on train fares and extra investments on the NHS. This core vote strategy at least has the advantage of showcasing Miliband’s strengths and comfort zone.
Pitching to partners
But what is most striking about the 2015 manifestos is the face that they are noticeably aimed at attracting potential coalition partners.
The Conservatives’ Good Life manifesto makes overtures to a couple of Liberal Democrat’s pet areas – namely the promises to offer 30 hours of free childcare, to raise the personal tax allowance to £12,500 and to make extra investments in the NHS. Curiously, these two latter promises match to the penny the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitments.
Labour seems also to have invited the Liberal Democrats to the ball by showing fiscal responsibility with the ‘triple lock of responsibility’. There is considerable overlap between the two parties when it comes to education, infrastructure investment, defence and Europe, but the Liberal Democrats have attacked Labour’s “irresponsible” approach to the deficit.
And since it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will supply Labour with sufficient seats to command a majority in the House of Commons, Labour’s manifesto also opens the door to a potential dialogue with the SNP.
The promise to eliminate the deficit by the end of next Parliament will not mollify the SNP, but a softer stance on Trident might and Labour’s manifesto leaves the door open for just that. Incidentally, this position on the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent may also please the Liberal Democrats.
With this three-pronged electoral strategy, Labour and the Conservatives are trying to cover the different fronts of the electoral battle. It is a high-risk strategy as the parties are testing a new plan on an unknown battleground. But given the high stakes of this election they would be foolish not to at least try it.