This Monday, as many of us returned to work for the first time after the Christmas break, we were greeted with a deluge of set-piece political speeches and events that could only mean one thing: the General Election campaign is very much upon us. And it won’t be going away any time soon.
While Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg waited till Monday to enter the fray, David Cameron sought to get ahead of the game last Friday with a visit to a marginal seat for a poster launch, followed by an appearance on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday. Having done his bit to kick things off over the weekend, the PM left it to a line-up of super-subs to provide the filling in a Miliband-Clegg sandwich on Monday.
The Tories’ decision to field a five-strong team of Cabinet ministers (George Osborne, Theresa May, William Hague, Nicky Morgan and Sajid Javid) on the day the other parties put their leaders front and centre was an interesting one. A few thoughts spring to mind as to why they might have gone down this route.
Firstly, it allowed the Tories to project an image of a united top team. With Theresa May in particular having come in for criticism at times for appearing to be positioning herself for a possible leadership succession bid, and George Osborne also widely believed to fancy the job, this was an opportunity to force the two to appear together in support of a common cause.
Secondly, it provided an opportunity for the Conservatives to convey a sense that they are putting forward not just a candidate for Prime Minister, but a ‘top team’ consisting of experienced older heads and newer, fresher faces, whom many in the electorate may not be so familiar with.
And thirdly, by putting the Home Affairs, Education and Culture Secretaries alongside the Chancellor, the Tories were able to implant the idea that their central message on the economy is pivotal to other areas of policy as well: we can’t have well-funded police services or invest in the arts, for example, unless we have a strong economy.
We were provided with a further reminder that General Election campaigns are a team game, rather than all about the star striker, when Nick Clegg this week unveiled his line-up of election spokespeople. This confirmed the long expected news that Danny Alexander will speak for the Lib Dems on Treasury and economic matters, inheriting the role which Vince Cable filled in 2010, with Vince (in theory at least) having to restrict his interventions to business policy. Tim Farron, who has never served on the Coalition front bench, takes on the role as lead spokesman on foreign affairs, in seeming recognition of his status as a favourite amongst the Lib Dem party faithful.
So what of Labour? With Ed Miliband’s personal ratings perceived as a hindrance to his party’s chances of victory, he more than anyone may be keen to show that it is not all about him and hand prominent roles to other members of his Shadow Cabinet. If so, who might he turn to? Here are five suggestions:
Andy Burnham: Over the course of this Parliament, Burnham has emerged as the clear ‘favourite’ of the Labour grassroots. He consistently tops the rankings of top-performing Shadow Cabinet members voted for by LabourList readers and has delegates eating out of the palm of his hand at Labour party conference. With Labour planning to put the NHS front and centre of its campaign, Burnham’s likeability and communication skills will be essential to getting the message across.
Ed Balls: Something of a ‘Marmite’ figure, even amongst his own party supporters, but Balls cannot hide away in an election which will be dominated by the economy. Balls toured the (metaphorical) studios on Monday rebutting Tory claims about unfunded spending commitments, but was keen to point out that Labour won’t be able to reverse many of the Tories’ cuts. However he will need to ensure that he does not simply come across as ‘Osborne-lite’ on cuts and articulate a positive vision of what Labour is fighting for.
Harriet Harman: The announcement today that Labour will launch a separate ‘manifesto for women’ indicates that Labour will place a strong emphasis on winning female voters whom, they will argue, have disproportionately affected by the policies of the Coalition. Harman’s long track record of campaigning on women’s rights means she is the obvious choice to front this part of the campaign, though her role as Labour’s deputy leader means she will expect to play a prominent role in all areas of the campaign.
Chuka Umunna: The most high-profile of Labour’s 2010 generation, Umunna is a regular media performer for Labour and is likely to remain so throughout the campaign. His relative youth and lack of association with the last Labour government can be used as assets, and he is an articulate speaker and loyal defender of Ed Miliband. As Shadow Business Secretary, Umunna may be called upon to rebut some hostility towards Labour from the business community on issues such as Labour’s tax plans.
Mary Creagh: A somewhat less obvious choice, given that Creagh’s recent move from Transport to International Development in the Shadow Cabinet was widely seen as a demotion. However Creagh is one of Labour’s most able media performers, as demonstrated by her recent well-received display on Question Time alongside the ‘box office’ panellists Russell Brand and Nigel Farage. Creagh displayed her ability to take the government to task as Shadow Environment Secretary during the horsemeat scandal and would be a sound choice for a more prominent role in the campaign.
Of course many others will be called upon in the coming months, including senior figures such as Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander. Others who do not currently have a frontbench role, such as Alan Johnson, may also be asked to step up their involvement. But this five would represent a strong, balanced team to support Ed Miliband in the months ahead.
What is clear is that all three of the main established parties, none of whom have overwhelmingly popular leaders, must recognise that the coming campaign will be a team game. Whoever can field the strongest line-up will significantly improve their chances.