UK Politics

Landale online: The general election starts here

Let it be recorded for posterity that on Monday, 23 May 2011, amid all the hoopla of the Obama visit, the injunctions row and the threat of a volcanic ash crowd, campaigning for the next general election quietly began.

With almost exactly four years left before they go to the polls, both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition gave speeches in which they at last found something to agree about.

Politics, they said, is about more than just cutting the deficit. Other stuff is important too.

Thus David Cameron in Milton Keynes: "Everyone knows that sorting out our nation's finances... is this government's most urgent priority.

"But too many people think that's the limit of our ambitions...that all we care about is balancing the books. Wrong. I want to balance the books to achieve the things I really care about."

And the thing he really cares about is creating what he calls a "stronger society" with strong families, communities and relationships.

"So as our debts are paid off, this is what I want to endure as the lasting legacy of this administration."

Note that use of the word legacy. One year in and it is already nagging away at the prime minister's mind.

And as for Ed Miliband, he said this: "Cutting the deficit matters. And the argument about how we do it matters too.

"But our politics cannot be reduced just to a debate about the deficit without considering the consequences for our country."

The consequences, the Labour leader said, would be a generation of young people held back by the cuts that the government is introducing to pay off the deficit, finding it hard to find a job, a house, a place at university.

"David Cameron's benchmark for his government is simply deficit reduction. The benchmark I set for a future Labour government is much more than that. It is about improving the chances for the next generation."

To fulfil what he calls his "promise of Britain", he would repeat the bank bonus tax to create jobs and build houses, do more to support the family and focus on the environment.

These priorities, he said, "will be central to our work and our next manifesto".

Note that use of the word manifesto, four years away from polling day.

Note too, Mr Miliband's decision to give his speech at the Royal Festival Hall, the place where in another age, another time, a bleary-eyed young fellow called Tony Blair stood on a platform in front of cheering crowds and declared: "A new dawn has broken, has it not?"

A few reflections:

1. Both party leaders seem to be trying to park the deficit as a political issue.

On the basis of these speeches, both appear to be making the assumption that the economic crisis will work its way through and are moving their focus accordingly on to what happens next.

Mr Cameron is polishing up the Big Society as his legacy, Mr Miliband is trying out his big new idea of the Promise of Britain.

2. Optimists would say this is good strategy.

Elections tend to be won on the promise of sunlit uplands to come, not in gratitude for leaving the slough of despond.

On 7 May 2015, both main parties will need what political eggheads love to call "a forward offer". In English, this means a coherent promise to make life better.

3. Pessimists would say that it is wrong to make complacent assumptions about cutting the deficit.

This process is still on track, many people have yet to lose their jobs and see their incomes squeezed further.

The economy is not out of the woods yet. And to base a political strategy on deficit reduction coming to a seamless end in 2014 - one way or another - is bold to say the least. The next four years will be unpredictable.

The bottom line is that the debate about 2015 has begun.

It was not that long ago when political discourse was centred on the deficit alone - the scale and speed of the parties' relative spending cuts, and their impact on our daily lives.

But the caravan, it seems, has moved on and already the politicians are looking to the next general election.

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