Final week: Labour populism vs the economy, ‘stupid’

The political parties are entering the final furlong of the election campaign. And, to continue the horse racing analogy, the Tories and Labour are still pretty much neck and neck.

It’s been evident since day one of the campaign that there would be a hung parliament. And so much of the election has been occupied with discussions of the permutations of the next government. Will one party (Labour or the Conservatives) win enough seats to go it alone – even with a minority? Or will it be a case of the Lib Dems or, more likely, the SNP holding the role of kingmaker, either in formal coalition or through a supply and consent arrangement? What’s never been in doubt is that, political fragmentation be damned, the next Prime Minister will come from either Labour or the Conservatives.

As we enter the final full week of campaigning, the pieces are starting to come together. Nick Clegg is adamant the Lib Dems will not be part of a coalition that involves the SNP. Whether that is ultimately the case or not may depend on whether Mr Clegg is still party leader (and indeed still an MP) after the election. But for the time being he appears to have aligned his party more with a resurrection of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition than any formal association with Labour.

The SNP have continued to make overtures to Labour, which continues to insist there will be no formal coalition (although a supply and consent arrangement is still possible). But in recent days the tables have been turned ever so slightly on Nicola Sturgeon, with Labour strategists picking up on SNP positioning and a hardening of Tory policy to ask the question – who else would the SNP support?

And so it boils down to Labour and the Conservatives. The latter’s warnings of a Labour-SNP alliance have begun to pall with the electorate in recent days, while the attacks on Ed Miliband appear to be having less than the desired effect. Indeed, the Labour leader seems to have hit a rich vein of form and has confounded critics of late by winning hearts if not minds amongst the electorate.

David Cameron has committed the Conservatives to talking about the economy for the remainder of the campaign – a move very reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid.” Labour will continue to offer more populist solutions, such as today’s foray into the property and rental markets. The next week will hopefully involve more articulation of policy than mud-slinging, but for the Tories the attack on Labour will be to ask how their policies will be funded in the context of economic legacy of the last Labour government. Labour will continue to challenge the Tories on how they will pay for their policies, while also challenging Mr Cameron to explain how his means of maintaining the economic recovery will not require further deep cuts to public expenditure.

To complete the horse racing analogy, we’ll need to photo finish to separate them on 8 May.