Now the party conference season is drawing to a close, the ideological battlefronts on which next year’s general election is to be fought have been declared. For the first time since the great recession, both the Conservatives and Labour feel confident enough to make a return to their favoured stomping grounds of tax cuts and spending increases.
The Conservatives have announced a £7.2 billion tax cut. The bulk of these cuts will come from raising the personal pretax allowance to £12,500 from £10,000, with the balance from raising the top tax band from £41,865 to £50,000. A typical worker on the basic rate will pay roughly £500 a year less in tax, and a higher top tax band is aimed at easing the way for middle earners. Together, these cuts will benefit 30 million people and be implemented around 2018. This stands in stark contrast to the proposals pursued by Labour. The flagship policy is a pledge to increase NHS funding by £2.5 billion, but there are also pledges to continue increasing, albeit slightly, the child and unemployment benefits. The money allocated to the NHS would be spent on 20,000 nurses, 8,000 GPs, 5,000 care workers, and 3,000 midwives. Much like the Tory proposals, this would most likely be implemented late in the next parliament.
The general election in 2010 revolved, rightly, around the economic malaise affecting Britain, and particularly governmental debt. The central driving narrative of that election was that Labour had brought economic disaster, and both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats gained in opposition to this. Now, the narrative has shifted. The economic focus has moved from the macroeconomic, such as the deficit, to the personal. Mr Miliband’s “cost of living” attack on David Cameron detailed that, while the deficit and unemployment were shrinking and business picking up, productivity (and therefore wage growth) has been largely non-existent, and many of the poorest families are finding costs rising in real terms. This stands as the most successful political move during his time as leader of the opposition, and forms the backbone of Labour party policy now.
It is in this febrile environment that the different tax and spending commitments were forged. The tax cut is a traditional conservative response, designed so that it affects workers universally, putting money back in the pockets of both lower- and middle-income workers so they can cope with the rising cost of living. Mr Miliband, realising that the Labour party has space to drift back to the left in answer to cost of living issues, has used policies of more funding for the NHS, increasing the benefits packet, and price-capping energy (among others) to control the narrative. The move away from crisis has allowed the return of creed into the political narrative, and so rather than being fought on competence, as in 2010, this election will be fought on ideology.
Over the last few years, the line between parties has been blurred. New Labour was designed to appeal to business, as well as workers, and Mr Cameron launched a response to this with his Big Society plans. The general election next year will mark an end to centrist politics for a time and a corresponding return to clear divide. The great recession put trust in economic management front and centre but, now that economic crisis is over, both Labour and the Tories have drifted away from the centre and asserted the dominance of their ideologies to prevent votes floating away to the opposition. Party politics have returned with force.