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Nick Wood’s Campaign Commentary: Tory versus Labour? Or is it Tesco versus Sainsbury’s?

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Which party plans to spend an extra £8 billion a year on the NHS, freeze rail fares for five years, order companies to give their staff time off for community work, and impose higher taxes on pension savings for people earning over £150,000 a year?

Answer: the Conservatives. Labour, which has restricted its health services ambitions to a modest extra £2.5 billion a year, was yesterday reduced to spluttering into its soup, castigating the Tories for making unfunded spending commitments.

Not that Labour is being outflanked in the busybody stakes. Its manifesto, to be launched today, will instruct Premier League football to give five per cent of its TV earnings to grassroots sport, an injunction to be backed by the force of law if necessary.

As the parties prepare to launch their manifestos this week, this is proving a topsy-turvy election. Policy initiatives shoot across the sky like rockets on fireworks night. But quite who has fired them, you cannot be sure.

Time was when a Tory initiative, like flogging off council houses or curbing union power, was coloured the deepest blue. Equally, the Labour prescriptions of the past, scrapping the nuclear deterrent or nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, were red in tooth and claw. Not now. The battle between the two big parties is more like a contest between Tesco and Sainsbury than the ideological wars of the 1970s and 1980s.

True, the supermarket analogy began under Blair and Major, but it has now assumed particular force. Even the apparent main dividing line of this election – the glide path to a balanced budget – is no fiscal chasm. George Osborne intends to balance the books by 2018; Ed Balls says he would like to take a year or two longer.

The interchangeability of the political brands is a key reason why the election is failing to excite the public. Anecdotal evidence suggests that political posters in windows and gardens are few and far between; the numbers of activists on the ground is dwindling across the political spectrum; and you don’t get the impression that the Dog and Duck is echoing to the sound of fierce dispute among the regulars.

Nor does it help the Tory strategy of seeking to terrify voters about the prospect of Miliband marching into Downing Street in place of the sensible and competent Mr Cameron. If Tory policies can be confused with Labour ones, why should we worry who is pulling the levers of power.

The Tory plan to raise the inheritance tax threshold for a couple to £1 million is an echo of past divides. But, as Nigel Farage pointed out, this plan was first floated by the Conservatives in 2007, ditched by the Coalition Agreement, and has lain fallow for these past five years. If it was such a great idea why didn’t Cameron and Osborne fight Clegg for its implementation during their time in power?

The other thing to bear in mind as the manifestos are unveiled is that they are essentially all negotiating positions. Almost certainly, none will ever be enacted. Whatever Labour says in its prospectus will be heavily varied in future talks with a minority party such as the SNP or the Lib Dems. The same applies to the Tories.

The question this week for the press – and for us all – is which parts of the manifestos are non-negotiable. Is there a red line drawn around Labour’s plans for a mansion tax, renewal of Trident or a crackdown on non-doms? Equally, will Cameron insist on his In/Out referendum in all circumstances?

Peter Hitchens, the splendidly iconoclastic Mail on Sunday columnist, yesterday on Sky News floated the idea of the election resulting in a Grand Coalition between Tory and Labour. It sounds incredible. But then you could not rule out Tesco merging with Sainsbury.

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Nick Wood
Nick Woodhttp://www.mippr.co.uk
Chief Executive of Media Intelligence Partners

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