UK Election Campaign Gets Underway as Parties Make Spending Claims

UK general election
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband smiles as launches his party's 2015 election campaign, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, north west England January 5, 2015. Andrew Yates/ REUTERS

The starting gun to mark the beginning of the campaign for the UK general election appeared to have been fired today as the three main parties all held events to kickstart their campaigns. Labour leader Ed Miliband delivered a speech at a 'launch event' Salford, while no less than five Conservative ministers appeared at event to release a critique of Labour's spending plans. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also held a press conference claiming his party were best placed to reign in the others.

Marking out the key battlegrounds between the two parties, the Miliband argued that the Conservatives had not got rid of the deficit as promised, and if the Tory plan for the next five years was the same, then Britain would be "on the road to nowhere", saying: "The Tory experiment has failed."

He went on to promise that Labour would protect the NHS, saying that "if we give [the Tories] five more years… the NHS as we know it just won't be there" and highlighted the importance of remaining in the EU, blaming Cameron for playing, "risky irresponsible games on the European Union".

He also addressed Labour's controversial plans to impose a mansion tax saying, "those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden" - a statement that was greeted with applause from the audience, made up of Labour party members.

However, it was the 82-page document produced by the Conservatives, entitled A Cost Analysis Report of Labour Party Policy which caused the most political excitement with its conclusion that Labour has promised £20.7 billion in unfunded spending commitments.

In a press conference held today, five Tory ministers - the chancellor George Osborne, home secretary Theresa May, leader of the House of Commons William Hague, culture secretary Sajid Javid and education secretary Nicky Morgan - lambasted Labour over the opposition's spending plans, arguing that the party would be forced to borrow £1,200 per household to achieve the spending commitments they have set out.

The Labour press team quickly started to rebuff many of these claims on Twitter:

p.44 of Tory dossier says Labour will cancel cuts to the arts budget. We won't.

— Labour Press (@labourpress) January 5, 2015

The gathered journalists also appeared to be dubious about the Tories' findings. An ITV reporter pointed out that Labour criticising a cut did not necessarily mean they were promising to reverse it, to which George Osborne replied that the Tories had applied a "reasonableness test" whilst creating the report.

Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott was quick to point out that the Tories critique is unsupported by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) - the well respected, London-based economic research centre. Indeed, in a radio interview earlier today Miliband addressed the £20.7bn figure calling it "total nonsense", before going on to say that "the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a respected body, said we'd been the most cautious in making spending commitments".

Carl Emmerson, the deputy director of (IFS) said: "What this report is really signally is the lack of detailed plans from any of the parties about what they would do to reduce the deficit. If they had these we could go through and see what adds up and what doesn't. But none of them have clearly set out how they would get the deficit down."

Whilst the Conservatives and Labour fought it out over plans to reduce the deficit whilst maintaining services, deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also held a press conference in which he claimed that the Lib Dems are the only viable party to support either a minority Labour or Conservative government. "Only the Liberal Democrats can keep the government in the centre ground and stop the two old parties veering off to the extremes of left and right," he said, adding that the Liberals would bring "spine" to a Labour administration and "heart" to a Conservative one.

"Just imagine a Labour minority government propped up by the SNP or a Tory minority propped up by Ukip," he continued, "or either party constantly having to go on bended knee to a rag-tag mob of nationalists, unionists, Greens and Respect MPs to beg for votes. It would be mayhem as everyone scrambles around for a bargain like the first day of the January sales. Messy. Unstable. Unfair."

However, in the question and answer session with journalists after, Clegg refused to rule out entering a coalition with either Ukip or the SNP.

Both current prime minister David Cameron and Ed Miliband have labelled the coming election as "the most important of a generation", but it looks unlikely that either the Conservatives or Labour will win an overall majority, with them almost level in the polls and a number of smaller parties taking votes and potentially seats from each side. There is also concern that even if the largest party is forced to form a coalition with the third largest they still will be unable to form a majority government - a novel concern in Britain where until 2010 the 'first past the post' electoral system had installed majority governments in all but one of the post-war elections.

In radio interviews prior to his speech, Miliband had played down the idea of forming coalition saying: "I've got a very old-fashioned view on this, which is I want a majority Labour government… I think the way this government has run itself, coalition government has become an excuse for each side breaking their promises, frankly."

On the BBC1's Andrew Marr Show this weekend Cameron refused to answer the question of whether the Tories would align with anti-EU party Ukip if they failed to win the majority. Twice pushed to say if his party would combine with Ukip, the prime minister declined to comment, saying he wouldn't speak about any possible combinations and was focusing on a Conservative majority government.