It’s been party manifestos week, with Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP all publishing their blueprints for the next five years.
A cross dressing exercise
Both Labour and the Conservatives attempted something of a cross-dressing exercise. Labour, conscious of their reputation for being uncertain guardians of the economy, placed, on page 1 of their manifesto, a “Budget Responsibility Lock”. The pledge, which underpinned their manifesto, guaranteed that every policy had been paid for and that no commitment required additional borrowing.
This cautious approach inevitably meant that there was little in the way of spending promises and money raised from new taxes such as a controversial ‘mansion tax’ on homes over £2m was promised to shore up the NHS budget.
They did however pledge to freeze rail fares for one year and raise the minimum wage to more than £8 by October 2019, a year earlier than that recommended by the independent Low Pay Commission.
Other pledges included requiring any firm that was awarded a large government contract to offer apprentices and making such companies publish details of their gender pay gap.
In a policy that was heavily trailed in the preceding week, the party also pledged to end the ‘non-dom rule’ that allows some wealthy UK residents to limit the tax they pay on earnings outside the country.
Labour sources hinted that the party was holding some policies back, to be unveiled in the build up to the election and indeed, today, Labour announced a new policy, to stop companies hiring interns on an unpaid basis for more than four weeks. Nonethless, Labour was careful to stipulate that those who volunteered for charities and non-profit organisations, or those working on university placement schemes would not be affected.
Being fiscally responsible
While Labour’s manifesto was sparing in terms of giveaways to voters, the Conservatives, confident that they were regarded by a greater percentage of the public as being fiscally responsible, sought to recast themselves as the “party of working people”, offering “security” at every stage of a voter’s life.
This cradle to grave approach was naturally replete with spending pledges and tax cuts to help “hard-working families” and create an atmosphere of hope; promising new jobs, new apprenticeships and the extension of Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy to policy to housing association stock (first pledged in the party’s 2005 general election manifesto, written by one D. Cameron as a junior shadow frontbencher).
Notably, the Conservatives promised an additional £8bn for the NHS, 30 hours free childcare, increasing the inheritance tax threshold for married couples and civil partners to £1m and passing a new law that would mean all those working 30 hours a week and earning the minimum wage would not pay income tax on earnings.
Other pledges included promising to hold an in / out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017 and guaranteeing those who work for a big company and the public sector entitlement to volunteering leave for three days per year.
A tougher rhetoric on immigration
UKIP can lay claim to have been the most successful pressure group in recent political history. Without their influence, the Conservatives are unlikely to have included an EU referendum pledge in their manifesto and they have undoubtedly also pushed the two main parties to embrace a tougher rhetoric on immigration.
Their manifesto promised largely predictable fare on EU exit and immigration although they did make a commitment to spend two per cent of national output on defence, a pledge conspicuously evaded by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Reclaiming lost ground
The Liberal Democrat manifesto concentrated on reclaiming lost ground on education, healthcare and the low-paid. The party promised an extra £2.5bn for England’s education budget to guarantee funding from nursery to 19 years old, increasing the personal tax-free allowance to £12,500 and ensuring equal care for mental and physical health.
The party also makes mention of a supplementary corporation tax for the banking sector although no further detail on this was given.
Full of substantial promises
The Green Party manifesto was full of substantial promises such as a pension of more than £300 a week for a couple, renewable energy taking over from fossil fuels and a million new public sector jobs. This was mostly dependent upon a new wealth tax on those earning over £3m and claims that the party would raise an extraordinary £30bn extra from clampdowns on tax avoidance.
The Greens at least made no attempt at fiscal rectitude, promising to carry on spending more each year than the government gets from revenue, meaning potentially everlasting deficits.
So have these manifestos shifted voter’s perceptions of the five parties?
The polls would not suggest so. Labour and the Conservatives remain gridlocked, the Liberal Democrats continue to trail in their wake and the Green Party and UKIP have not appealed much beyond their core vote, although perhaps picking up a stray few disaffected Labour and Conservative voters along the way.
Does this matter? After all, this General Election, more than any other, is about who Labour and the Conservatives can work with in government since neither party is likely to secure a majority.
Nothing more than ‘public foreplay’
The Conservatives manifesto is by and large palatable to the Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives. Labour’s manifesto is by and large palatable to the Liberal Democrats, Labour’s to the Liberal Democrats. The Green’s manifesto and the UKIP manifesto are unlikely to affect any eventual government policy since neither party is expected to return more than a few MPs. This is obviously without taking into account the impact of the SNP, who are likely to return a significant enough number of MPs to disturb the make-up of the next parliament and who have delayed publishing their manifesto until next week.
Perhaps it is best to think of the three main party manifestos as being, in the memorable phrase of Lord O’Donnell (the former Cabinet Secretary who co-ordinated the 2010 coalition talks), nothing more than ‘public foreplay’, an indication, but not a guarantee of what spliced together policy agreement voters can expect from a new government. One thing is certain; none of the three main party manifestos will remain fully intact.