Britain’s two main political parties launched their manifestos early this week, as the latest polls showed that prime minister David Cameron’s Conservatives had pulled ahead of Ed Miliband’s Labour, before a knife-edge May 7 election.
There are just three weeks to go before what is shaping up to be Britain’s closest poll since the 1970s. Launching his party’s pre-election policy document on Tuesday (14), Cameron promised to deliver the “Conservative dream” of a home-owning democracy, where over one million more families could buy their housing association homes cheaply.
In Manchester the previous day, Miliband tried to overturn a damaging perception that Labour cannot be trusted on the economy. His party’s manifesto, he said, showed it had the most responsible plan to manage Britain’s finances.
In addition, Labour put forward pledges targeting the BAME communities in Leicester on Tuesday, promising to launch a cross-government race equality strategy if voted to power.
A poll by TNS on Tuesday as EE went to press showed the Conservatives on 34 per cent, up four percentage points from the previous TNS survey, and Labour on 32 per cent, down one percentage point.
The Liberal Democrats were on nine per cent of the vote, behind the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) which was on 14 per cent.
Cameron hopes to convert his economic record into victory at the polls.
“We’re on the brink of something special,” he told activists at a school in Swindon. “Let’s not let Labour drag us back to square one.
“We can turn the good news in the economy into a good life for you and your family. Britain can be this buccaneering, world-beating, can-do country again”.
If re-elected, he said his party would extend a “right-to-buy” scheme, first introduced by former Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, to allow people living in social housing to purchase their homes at a discount.
The scheme, first launched in 1980, helped Thatcher win three elections. Cameron hopes his expansion of the programme – to include social housing owned by non-profit organisations – will allow him to broaden the economic message of his campaign.
Cameron said:, “We offer a good life for those willing to try because we’re the party of working people.”
Holding out the prospect of higher living standards after five years of austerity, the prime minister said: “The dream of a property-owning democracy is alive and we will help you fulfil it.
Under the new right-to-buy scheme, families living in non-profit housing associations would be granted the right to buy their properties at a heavy discount. For each home sold, a new one would have to be built.
Cameron chose to largely abandon negative campaigning amid criticism the strategy was backfiring and focused on what he could offer voters. He made no mention of Miliband and did not repeat a robust personal attack on the Labour leader’s character made last week by defence secretary Michael Fallon.
Speaking in front of a giant British flag and the slogan “A brighter, more secure future”, Cameron told the audience, which included his wife Samantha, that voters had to stick with him if they wanted continued economic security and strong leadership.
Echoing Thatcher again, he said Britain did not have to be “a steadily declining, once-great nation” but could revert to being a small island “with a massive impact”.
He also promised to double the amount of free childcare and to legislate to ensure that nobody working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage pays any income tax. In addition, Cameron has pledged a referendum on European Union membership.
But the Conservatives faced criticism from opposition parties that they had not revealed how they would fund their promises.
Danny Alexander, a leading Liberal Democrat who was number two to chancellor George Osborne in the coalition, accused the Tories of keeping “their massive cuts secret and their promises unfunded”.
On Monday while launching his party’s manifesto, Miliband insisted he was ready to be Britain’s next prime minister. He also sought to reassure voters that Labour would manage the economy responsibly while outlining “a plan to change our country” by handing more wealth to low and middle-income families.
Labour’s record on the economy, while in government between 1997 and 2010 under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is frequently attacked by the Conservatives, who blame the party for running up a budget deficit of some £90 billion.
Miliband, who was in a bullish mood, said Labour had learned lessons from the crisis and could balance the books in a fairer way than the Tories, while remaining fiscally prudent.
“I’m ready. Ready to put an end to the tired old idea that as long as we look after the rich and powerful, we will all be OK,” Miliband told supporters. “I know Britain can be better.
“You want Labour values and a new start, but you ask whether we can be responsible with our nation’s finances,” he said. “This is a plan to change our country. It is a manifesto which shows Labour is not only the party of change but the party of responsibility too.”
Miliband accepted that changing people’s perceptions about his party’s economic record would be tough, but denied he had left it too late. “Absolutely there is a challenge for us to show that we are going to be fiscally credible and get the deficit down. I am being quite open about that,” he said.
Peppering his speech with references to bankers, who he suggested were overpaid, as well as tax avoiders, he made frequent references to his core message which casts Labour as a party for all Britons and the Conservatives as a party only for the rich.
Miliband, who was speaking in a freezing former TV studio packed with supporters, was frequently applauded by them. He stood in front of a large red poster that read: “A better plan. A better future.”
Labour is promising to cut the deficit every year until it is eradicated, although it has not said exactly when this will be. It is also detailing how each manifesto pledge will be paid for, with no extra borrowing. The party says its plans for reducing the debt would hurt middle-income families less than the cuts to public services that have been announced by the Conservatives.
Instead, it intends to make wealthier taxpayers shoulder more of the burden through policies such as the “mansion tax”, which would hit homes worth £2 million or more, and increasing income tax for those earning more than £150,000 a year.
Chancellor George Osborne dismissed Miliband’s speech, repeating an accusation that a Labour government would mean higher debt, higher taxes and more borrowing.
Commentators say Miliband – who has struggled with a geeky public image since defeating his brother David to become Labour leader in 2010 – has turned in some strong personal performances on the campaign trail.
But his hopes of moving into Downing Street after the election could be dashed by an expected collapse for the party in Scotland, one of its traditional strongholds, due to surging support for the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The pro-independence SNP is expected to take the majority of Scottish seats, and its leader Nicola Sturgeon is talking up the prospect of a post-election deal with Labour to prop it up in a minority government.
Urging his supporters to mobilise for the election, Miliband told them the race could not be tighter.
“This election could come down to a few hundred votes in a few dozen constituencies,” said Miliband. “All of you can be the difference to the outcome of this election.”