We are perhaps beginning to see the problem of fixed term parliaments. Election campaigns start early. The new year is but a few days old but we are already at the beginnings of the elections which must be held in May. So this means we have in store effectively five months of campaigning. David Cameron was on the Andrew Marr show this morning in full campaigning mode. Claims and counter-claim came from the Labour and Tory parties.
An opinion Poll in the Observer has the Tory and Labour party running pretty well neck and neck. A four month campaign risks bringing serious decision making to an end as everything is now locked into the election timetable. The coalition exists now in name only. We are in election mode and the Liberal Democrats and Tories are establishing their positions. This is the problem with fixed term parliaments.
But the battle lines are already clear. The Tories will attack labour on tax and spend. Labour will attack the Tories on public services and particularly the NHS. The only unknown is what line the Liberal Democrats will adopt. Will they go into the election proud of their contribution to the coalition? That will depend on the mood of the electorate. They will try to distance themselves from the unpopular decisions taken - a kind of 'it wasn't me guv' approach. Whether the voters will buy that is up fro question. I doubt it. But if the economy looks strong for the Tories, then the Liberal Democrats will try another approach: 'it was us as well what done it'.
The survival of all three main party leaders depends on the campaign. Much depends on their performance. Labour I suspect are anxious about Ed Miliband. The dye is cast. There is little they can now do to change it. The Tories depend on negative campaigns against Miliband and the economy. If voters buy into the idea that the economy is good and their financial prospects with it, then I suspect the Tories are home and dry. Well, almost. I think the polls are closing because voters do feel a bit better off. Labour has an uphill task of persuading voters that other matters...matter. The problem for them is that they usually do that when the economy is good. When it is bad, the economy matters. It is all a bit of a conundrum for the party leaders.
Nuances are difficult to get across in an election campaign. Unemployment is falling. But there are fundamental problems with jobs. Those problems are difficult to get across. The deadline figure is what matters most. The same for economic growth. Voters won't be concerned too much about 'balanced growth'. Growth is growth, and growth is 'good', even if it isn't. The 'wrong' kind of growth can be...well, 'wrong'. I can't see Labour canvassers making that point clear on the doorsteps.
There is of course the simple approach: the economy is growing but people are still hurting. This of course is true. It is easier to get across because many families still feel the squeeze. The simple argument of the Tories about benefit scroungers doesn't have such resonance. Many hard working families experience difficulty with low pay and poor working conditions or hours. We have a large 'part time economy'. The numbers of those 'self employed' has grown not because we have become overnight a nation of entrepreneurs.
Elections we are told depend on how people feel as much as any reality or economic statistics. According to opinion surveys, confidence in the economy grew through most of 2014, but began falling again toward its end. Two concerns increased: immigration and the NHS. The latter of benefit to Labour; the former for UKIP. But there are signs also that the UKIP bubble may have burst. They will come under increasing scrutiny. As they do so they have been found wanting. The Tories made the mistake of sitting unrealistic targets for immigration. To set targets for factors over which you have no control is plain foolish. But that is what they did for election purposes. Now they will have to justify that to the voters. UKIP will of course have a field day.
I can't help feeling that something is not revealed in the polls. It is the tendency for voters to return to the fold. Will voters tempted by UKIP really follow through if it become clear, for example, that sitting Tory MPs will lose their seats? Somehow I think UKIP support is 'exaggerated' in pre general election polls. But we will see.
It will be a long haul. The ring pistol has gone off early and there is no stopping it now. Don't expect much sense in it all over the next four months.