Cautious campaign won't break stalemate

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Image caption Politicians are reluctant to rock the boat

Ok, it is early days, very, very early days of the official election campaign.

But the broad lines of the fight were drawn many months ago.

And the places where there were gaps in the campaigns were also obvious then: how much would Labour really cut in government to sort out the books? And how would the Conservatives really save £12bn from the welfare budget?

So far, there is no sign whatsoever that the two main parties will answer those significant questions in the next five weeks.

If you are a voter who has the audacity to want to know? Well, it seems that might just be tough luck.

It is not unusual in campaigns for political parties, particularly in opposition, to be well, slightly sketchy on detail.

People in my job spent much of the 2010 campaign asking the Conservatives what "further and faster" meant in terms of how they would get rid of the deficit.

They kept their answers firmly up their sleeve until after the campaign.

Unhelpful silence

But, with the election looming so very close, this silence doesn't help the stalemate.

Both sides are deeply, deeply reluctant to distract from their central message and are playing to their base.

On Wednesday, the Conservatives released the names of 100 business people, many of whom have donated money to the party who, guess what, support their plans for the economy.

Labour are promising to legislate quickly to get rid of the worst kinds of zero-hours contracts where staff aren't guaranteed shifts and, by implication, wages.

The letter and the zero-hours announcement are important campaign moves.

But neither is surprising.

The caricature is big corporations versus the ordinary worker, or Goliath versus David, or the powerful and influential versus the hard-working less well off, with both parties as stuck in that narrative as the polling numbers are stuck in a numerical rut.

But, despite the noise of the campaign so far, nothing much looks like moving votes.

Parallel elections

Why? We are a long, long way from the era when politicians were fighting over the centre ground.

One senior Conservative told me, shaking their head: "It is pathetic, everyone is playing to base, everyone has given up the centre."

A key Labour figure put it a different way, describing the campaign as two "parallel elections".

However, that same source still believes they are playing to the centre ground. It is just that the centre ground, in their view, has moved.

But as strategists scratch their heads over the polls refusing to budge much beyond the margins of error, isn't it entirely possible that those two things are connected?

If the two main parties have more or less deserted the familiar centre, should we be surprised that it doesn't look like there will be any significant shifts of voters flocking to them?

One senior politician shrugged their shoulders disappointedly at what the main leaderships are offering right now:

"There is nothing inevitable about the idea of the end of big majorities, it's just that we are not offering voters very much that's worth going for."

The risk perhaps is that both main parties could look like they are talking only to themselves and their existing supporters - in a campaign where they want to avoid answering hard questions, avoid saying anything unexpected, and avoid any surprises.

Lack of ambition

Add to this the determination of all of the parties not to publish their manifestos until well into April and this election might end up being characterised by a lack of ambition.

A lack of ambition in campaigns designed to make sure core voters turn up, rather than attracting the new in any significant numbers, and a lack of politicians' faith in their own ideas that makes them reluctant to share their full plans until late in the day, if at all.

Again and again, we hear voters around the country saying they want politicians to tell them what's what.

It is naïve to imagine that doesn't have risks of its own.

But, as both of the main parties concentrate on gingerly carrying their core voters like a Ming vase to the finish line, their hands are too full to able to reach out to anyone else.

So what chance is there the two big parties will be able to break out of the stalemate?

Maybe only if they are willing to break this relative silence first.

PS: The delay in publishing manifestos is not just a point for the political nerds.

Manifesto commitments are not only important for the public to be able to scrutinise. They also give civil servants vital guidance on how parties wish to govern and, if a party does win power, the House of Lords is not able continually to block legislation from becoming law if it has been part of a party's manifesto.