by Ian Moss
In the summer of 2007 regional offices of the Labour party distributed leaflets to its constituencies and held briefing meetings with ward organisers to discuss the campaign plan for the forthcoming general election. Gordon Brown and his team kept open the possibility of going to the country whilst torturing themselves internally on whether to take the risk only two years into the third term Labour government.
As we all know this event is now commonly known as ‘the election that never was’. The point of regurgitating the painful memories of that story for everyone who watched it slowly reach its inevitable denouement is to emphasise one simple point: before the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 not even the government knew when the election was going to be and they were the ones that had the power to call it.
The Act has changed the rhythm of politics. At this time in the political cycle the government and opposition used to be playing a game of chicken over the election. Will they go the full term? Will they call early? How is the economic cycle looking? etc. etc. Instead, pretty much every major figure in politics went on a good long holiday.
This was sensible and calculated. They all know the election is in 2015, they all know next summer they will be in the middle of the long slog of a campaign that will last more than a year, starting in the autumn, and they all want to make sure they had a good break this summer so they can be prepared for it.
Why not? The voters are switched off for the summer as well, and the political campaign over August is really an absurd prisoner’s dilemma. Every party thinks they have to do it because the other parties are. Every year the political parties spend their summers boxing shadows, or each other. Every cabinet minister knows that this time next year they will be expected not to leave the country, to be on call, and to be attending campaign events across the UK.
This sudden change in the cycle of politics has been frustrating for the journalists who have been used to a steady stream of campaign stories over summers ever since the 90s when the Labour party first cut loose and decided to try and do politics whilst nobody was watching. The stream of stories about why the Labour party has been silent is because there is nothing to write about for the people who wouldn’t want to read about it anyway.
The Tories and the Liberal Democrats have been silent too, of course, but that’s not the issue – governments get to say a lot of things in term time, so there is not quite the same impetus on them to be blathering on all holiday as well. Oppositions have to fight for attention, and the long vacation is usually a good time to do it.
With fixed term parliaments the dynamic of politics changes and political strategy changes with it. The opposition does not have to show its hand in case the government decides to call a snap election and there is no time to define the programme. The gap in announcements would have made Labour vulnerable under the old system. Under the new system it makes absolute strategic sense. Oppositions before could be drawn into early announcements that are lifted or rubbished long before an Election was called. Now we all know the date and the parties can plan for that.
Ed Miliband knows this – which is why he understands there is no benefit in spewing out policies. It is much easier to frame the policy narrative in government, and the Tories and Liberal Democrats would much prefer he was setting everything out now so they can change the rules of the game.
Instead, Miliband can talk in broad sweeps – emphasising the rises in the cost of living under this government and the drop in real wages faced by families with little room to manoeuvre – without tying himself down on every line of a manifesto. He can do this as he is the first leader of her majesties’ opposition to have the luxury of planning for an election date that is known to all sides. Including, for the first time, the government too, and don’t for a minute think they are not doing the same thing – the paper thin legislative programme is a function of the same approach.
So all the articles over the summer about the gap in policy announcements from the opposition have been in lieu of what would have been the opening shots of an election campaign under previous rules. In September, the 2015 election campaign will start in earnest. It will be long and gruelling for politicians and, probably, the public will tire of it long before it is over. So it is not a silly thing at all that politicians have had a good break over August. They have given the voters a break too.
Ian Moss has worked across government and is now in public affairs