Both Labour and Tories face a battle to win back truculent voters in 2015

The start of the long election campaign is not a formal moment in the democratic calendar. No parliamentary custodian fires a starting pistol.

It resembles more the messy opening of the Grand National where the jockeys circle and warily hover near the starting tape and then suddenly and identifiably they are off. Launches, posters, pledges, dossiers and bombshells abound. The daily prose of government gradually gives way to the often uninspiring poetry of the campaign.

There will be landmarks on the way. A kudos-enhancing David Cameron visit to the White House in the middle of January, elections in Greece on 25 January capable of plunging the euro back into turmoil, spring party rallies, a largely fantastical UK budget on 16 March, and then the dissolution of parliament on 30 March. All the while there will be the regular statistical updates from the Office for National Statistics on the health of UK plc – jobs, growth, living standards, A&E waiting times, crime numbers, immigration flows, leading finally to polling day on 6 May. The main two parties – the century-old Leviathans of politics – will obviously batter one another during the long campaign. Labour will warn that a second Tory term would mean a return to the 30s, billions of unnecessary cuts and a palsied state. The Tories will counter that Labour signals a return to the 00s, extra borrowing and a bloated state. Each party, as the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, made clear last week, will try to define the other as off the centre ground.

But the two main parties also have a higher shared purpose in the long campaign, one that may decide whether Britain is truly on the brink of an era in which coalitions become “the new normal” of British politics.

For both Cameron and Ed Miliband, the big task of the long campaign is to stop and reverse the centrifugal forces that dominated UK politics in 2014.

Truculent voters will have to be persuaded to shed their byelection frame of mind, and accept that this contest in essence remains a binary choice between two kinds of government for the next five years. Protest votes of Scottish nationalism, English nationalism or Green idealism might have suited the elections of 2014, but not the big choice of 2015.

It is a massive challenge for the old parties. If they don’t succeed, every target seats becomes a lottery where a few hundred Ukip or Green disruptive votes could play havoc with projections based on a national swing.

Last year was the first year that saw the combined vote share of the main two parties in the UK fail to reach 70% in every single month. The number of voters that self-identify as supporters of one of the main parties is below 50%.

Voters attracted to protest are likely to be immune to self-serving or patronising arguments from the very politicians they despise. True, some voters may initially have thought they were only dipping their toe in the water of protest, but now find they have crossed a Rubicon and quite like the view from the other bank.

Arguably voters feel more independent and enfranchised than ever before. As Clay Shirky has shown in his book Here Comes Everybody, the internet and its mores have made group action and independence from party organisation a whole lot easier. That makes voters, driven by values as much as policies, a lot less susceptible to the warnings of established politicians.

That does not make a squeeze impossible. Cameron has done all he can to reduce Ukip’s policy appeal. Tory defectors to Ukip overwhelmingly prefer Cameron to Miliband and see a Conservative government as their preferred election outcome. Only around half of Ukip supporters rule out returning to their old party before the election. Prior to the European elections 58% of Ukip’s support said it would never defect and would stay loyal to Nigel Farage. By autumn that figure had drifted down to 50%. Lord Ashcroft’s Rochester & Strood poll found more than one-fifth of Ukip voters saying either that they would revert to the Tories in a general election, or that they didn’t know what they would do.

Moreover Ukip’s get-out-the-vote operation will be rudimentary, outside the five or so seats in which it has a realistic chance of winning.

Equally the new Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, should be able to claw back some of the vote lost to nationalism by arguing a vote for the SNP deprives Labour of an overall majority and merely guarantees another five years of Tory-led austerity.

As recently as September a Scottish Mail on Sunday poll reported that Labour still held a six-point lead over the SNP when it came to Westminster voting intention: Labour 39, SNP 33, Conservatives 18, Liberal Democrats three.

The referendum campaign has had a cathartic effect with Labour plunging to 26%, a full 17 points behind the SNP. In the space of two months a listless Labour party seems to have lost more than a third of it support north of the border. Murphy is a talented and ruthless politician, but again the task is daunting. Even if he managed to claw back to 35% in the next four months and the SNP slipped to 38%, the SNP would equal Labour with 28 seats, a force at Westminster comparable to the likely strength of the Liberal Democrats.

The big parties can also take comfort from polling that show campaigns can change minds, and not merely expose a pre-existing mindset.

For instance, in 1992 – the election of John Major – Ipsos-Mori found only 63% had made up their mind before the election started. In 2001, Tony Blair’s second landslide, the figure was 74%, and in 2010, only 57% said they knew their mind before a politician started on the £35m campaign trail.

In 2010, Ipsos-Mori says, as many as 14% said they decided in the last 24 hours and a further 14% in the final week. Astonishingly only 36% of Liberal Democrat voters had decided to vote for Nick Clegg before the campaign began and 41% of his voters plumped for him in the final 24 hours or week. That is a staggering 2.7m voters, and presumably a reflection of the influence of the three TV election debates.

If campaigns indeed matter, that puts special pressure on Labour. It has less money and a press that is either contemptuous of Miliband personally or sees this as payback time for the Leveson inquiry.

Lord Mandelson once described the 1997 campaign as the Rolls-Royce of Labour campaigns. The 1987 campaign was the Ford Cortina, and the 2010 campaign even worse, presumably a Lada, as too many chiefs and no direction conspired to turn Gordon Brown’s great clunking fist into a fearsome self-destructive weapon.

No one quite knows what vehicle is coming off the Labour production line in 2015, but the prototypes did not look auspicious. Its European and local election campaigns can best be described as a work in progress.

Until 2010 Labour relied on Brown’s strategic brain at party headquarters and Blair’s razzle dazzle out in the field. On this occasion neither are available. Campaigns work best when there is a clear line of authority and clear coordination between the leader out on the campaign and the party HQ. Yet relations within party headquarters are poor and the Labour leader’s office is not a byword for steadiness under fire. The rightwing press have been hoarding skeletons from the Miliband family cupboard, and will unleash them at strategic points in the campaign. Miliband, unlike Cameron, Clegg or Farage, has little experience of day-to-day radio interviews, the bread and butter of election campaigns. Apparently innocent interviews with a regional presenter can go horrifically wrong if the candidate is under-briefed, tired or irritated. The questioners, often out to make a name for themselves, can be rude, repetitive, banal and smug, or all four. The only antidotes are authority, patience, self-awareness and charm. Miliband still needs to find those qualities, but if he gets a chance in the more formal structure of TV debates, he may well exceed low expectations. He can still be the change candidate pitted against the coalition candidates and Farage.

If there is a problem on the Tory side it is over-confidence bordering on arrogance. Even Michael Howard’s campaign manager Lord Saatchi in 2005 declared: “The only way we can possibly lose this election is through our own failing and our own stupidity.”

Before the 2010 election Cameron said of Brown’s re-election bid: “It’s like the captain of the Titanic asking to command the lifeboats. It’s like Robert Maxwell saying: ‘Let me reinvest your pension.’ It’s like Richard Nixon saying: ‘I am the man to clean up politics.’ Does the prime minister really expect the British people to turn round and say: ‘Thank you very much for nearly bankrupting the economy?’”

The Conservatives have a tendency to believe that the facts of life, especially the economic facts of life, are Tory. They see Miliband as a cross between Mr Bean and Forrest Gump, and assume too readily that the public will decide he is not up to it, and so will never vote Labour. Osborne is a brilliant strategist, but at the 11th hour he may have let Labour back into the economic argument by putting such an emphasis on a surplus in the public finances.

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown’s campaign may turn into little more than 57 mini-Stalingrads as besieged heroic candidates, many spurning offers of supplies from headquarters, fight individual battles of survival. But Clegg now seems to have exhausted the ways you can persuade voters to take a fresh look at him. The last lingering hope is that they will finally adopt an attitude of grudging respect for his perseverance and normality.

But all three parties are going to fight to get a hearing. The media felt they got badly turned over by the politicians in the 2010 election, largely following false trails and leaving the bigger story undisturbed.

Much campaign time was consumed, incredible as it seems in retrospect, discussing the feasibility of Tory plans to find £6bn of trivial Whitehall efficiency savings in 2010, when the Tories were in fact preparing cuts 10 times larger than that.

Secondly, very few outside the political parties looked seriously at the prospect of a hung parliament, or the terms of a deal between Liberal Democrats and Tories, a subject Cameron had asked Oliver Letwin to study in depth, and for which Clegg had also obviously made his own preparations.

Once bitten twice shy, the media this time will incessantly demand details of where the £30bn spending axe will fall (all three parties are committed to big fiscal consolidations to 2017-18).

Equally, each party leader will be asked to come clean with voters and distinguish those policies in their manifesto that are non-negotiable red lines, and those that are dispensable. Issues such as the terms on which party leaders will do deals, or seek to govern as a minority, the criteria on which they will decide the rival party leader to which to speak first and how they will seek democratic legitimacy for any deal within their own party will be constantly probed. Permutations will be drawn up showing the various rainbow alliances that could form the next government. Blue and yellow plus some Ulster Orangemen, and in extremis a smattering of Ukip purple from England’s south coast? Or red with Scottish Tartan, some Clegg-less yellow and maybe a bit of Green from another part of England’s south coast? Complex Venn diagrams will be produced showing how the policies of parties overlap.

It will be an election for the horse traders – less about what politicians say to win votes in the election itself than what the parties will do in the days and weeks after polling day.

If so that is where the voters are. Three-quarters of them now expect a hung parliament. But party leaders will of course be reluctant to join this discussion so as to maximise their negotiating flexibility and persuade voters to focus on their big election messages.

The reluctance is understandable. There are two men in the country who have to believe their party is going to win outright. If Cameron and Miliband can’t convince themselves that they will soon be standing on the steps of No 10 they will never be able to spend the next four months persuading the voters to make them prime minister.

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour, for The Guardian on Monday 5th January 2015 07.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010