LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron and his main opponent agree on one thing going into Britain's May 7 election: Voters should choose the next leader based on the health of the economy.
The question is whether the patient is recovering or is still on life support after the global financial crisis.
After five years of budget cuts, Cameron is focusing on the headline numbers. Inflation is down, employment is up and the economy is growing at the fastest rate among large industrialized nations. The Conservatives need five more years to cement the gains and ensure that benefits trickle down to everyone, Cameron says.
The opposition Labour Party is urging voters to look behind the headlines. Real earnings are below pre-crisis levels, employment figures are inflated by low-skill jobs, and the safety net that protects the poorest in society has been gutted, Labour leader Ed Miliband says. The use of food banks has soared as economic insecurity increased under Cameron's government.
While politicians are crisscrossing the country promising to control immigration, protect the National Health Service, build homes and improve education, the election boils down to a simple question: Did the Conservative-led government chart the right course through the worst recession since the 1930s?
"It's about austerity and globalization," said John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. "It is particularly, perhaps, about the consequences of austerity in the context of a globalized world."
While both parties pledge to continue cutting budget deficits, which ballooned during the financial crisis, the Conservatives are focused on spending cuts. Labour says it will cut less and compensate by raising taxes on the wealthy.
Ben Page of the IPSOS-Mori polling firm said people aren't focused on the specifics of deficit reduction. They are looking for someone to trust — to decide who is better suited to lead the United Kingdom forward from the weakest recovery since World War II.
"Voters will be choosing between the Conservatives, who are seen as being a bit mean but efficient and effective, and the Labour Party that is more caring but possibly less competent," Page said of the perceptions.
Complicating this equation is the rise of smaller parties, which could force Cameron or Miliband to form a coalition government that would pull them toward the economic extremes.
The right-wing U.K. Independence Party promises to leave the European Union and end inheritance taxes. At the other end of the scale, the left-leaning Scottish National Party, Greens and Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party all oppose budget cuts.
The Liberal Democrats, Cameron's current coalition partners, are positioning themselves as the moderate alternative, arguing they would soften austerity in a second Conservative-led government and enforce economic discipline in a Labour-led coalition.
While Cameron has succeeded in turning around the economy, he has been less successful in changing the perception of his party among uncommitted voters, according to Michael Ashcroft, a pollster and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. Growing numbers of voters see Labour as the party that's "on the side of people like me," he said in a report last month.
Miliband emphasized this contrast when he released the Labour Party's election program.
"The Tories would have you believe low pay is necessary for Britain to succeed," he said. "Friends, that is wrong. Low pay and insecurity stop us succeeding. They hold back working people and hold back our country."
The next day, Cameron promised that good times were just around the corner.
"We have put our country on solid ground," he said. "But let me tell you: The next five years are much, much more important. The next five years are about turning the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family."
Cameron so far has struggled to convince voters this is a real prospect, given that real wages are almost 10 percent below pre-crisis levels and newspapers are filled with stories about rich people and international companies avoiding taxes.
By contrast, Labour's poll numbers rose after Miliband pledged to eliminate a loophole that allows people with permanent homes abroad to trim their British tax bills, even though some economists said the proposal actually would reduce income for the Treasury.
Page said Labour "might win not because they are brilliant at running the economy, but because what they are deemed to be doing is fair."
Complicating the picture, some economists warn that even the headline economic figures may not be as good as they appear.
While Britain is in a stronger financial position today than in 2010 when Cameron rose to power, the recovery has been weak because of dismal productivity growth and lower wages, according to Erik Nielsen, an economist at UniCredit. He said Britain's economy has grown faster than its European peers chiefly because it has deferred many of the spending cuts deemed necessary to bring its budget deficits in line.
The government cut the primary structural deficit — the measure that excludes the nation's position in the business cycle — to 3.2 percent of GDP in 2011 from 6 percent in 2010. But annual structural deficits have fallen only 0.9 percentage points since then.
"Although there's been a lot of talk of austerity in the U.K., there hasn't really been much of it since 2011," Nielsen wrote in a note to investors. "This matters because the big cuts — and the associated fiscal drag — therefore lie ahead, which is the opposite of what you see in most of the eurozone."