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Navigating the manifesto minefield

This week saw a flurry of manifesto launches from each of the major parties, a list which now includes Nigel Farage’s Reform, much to Rishi Sunak’s chagrin (more on which later). 

Manifesto launches are, of course, pivotal moments in political campaigns. That’s why, over the course of the preceding months, an unholy alliance of MPs, wonks, and spinners will have been burning the midnight oil to create new blueprints for government. 

But it is a political high-wire act. Truly eye-catching pledges can really cut through, refreshing the parts of the body politic other beers cannot reach. But get your sums wrong, and your manifesto can unravel fast and on the biggest of stages, seeing your claims of credibility go up in smoke.

So forget Churchill’s metaphorical triptych about the Soviet Union; manifestos can be a banana skin wrapped in a molotov cocktail inside a landmine. But with apathy now palpable amongst voters and with just under three weeks until polling day, will this pledge-fest have changed any minds? 

Labour’s ‘Captain Caution’ manifesto

Labour’s risk averse manifesto was aptly characterised by Sky News’ Beth Rigby as one penned by ‘Captain Caution’ just moments after its launch on Thursday. Despite being a thumping 132 pages in length, Labour’s big blueprint for government contained…almost no new policy. 

Keir Starmer - ‘Captain Caution’ in the flesh - sought to play down the inevitable criticism of a manifesto light on the protein, with the Labour leader bemoaning the ‘pantomime’ nature of modern day politics and questioning voters’ wish to be presented with a rabbit out of the hat. He argued that ‘Britain needs stability, not more chaos’.

As a result, Labour’s manifesto launch felt soporific as well as stable, in keeping with their strategy to not make themselves a target whilst the Tories are so ably imploding. Much to the consternation of their supporters and those all important undecided voters, the manifesto did little to elaborate on why Starmer and his team will be effective agents for ‘change’. Whilst this might make for smart campaigning, it is hardly inspiring. 

So what is Labour going to do when (more likely than if) they form the next government? 

Labour have been adamant that they will not raise taxes for working people; they have committed to keeping the triple tax lock; ruled out increases in income tax; national insurance, or VAT; while continuing the freeze on income tax thresholds. 

That said, tax is not going completely untouched and Labour have planned to pay for many of their policies by removing VAT and business rate exemptions for private schools, a policy that has been successfully weaponised by the Tories as an example of the ideologically-driven ‘politics of envy’. Additionally, Labour intends to reform non-dom tax rules, abolishing non-dom status. There are also rumours of capital gains tax increases.

For Labour’s sacred cow extraordinaire of the NHS, Labour has promised an extra two million operations, scans, and appointments in their first year to address the stubborn backlog. They also aim to double the number of NHS scanners and implement Boris Johnson’s £86,000 lifetime cap on social care costs as the first step towards a national care service. 

Other notable mentions include a recruitment drive for teachers, a commitment to building 1.5 million homes in the next five years, allowing 16-year olds to vote, special measures for failing water companies, and a pledge to decarbonise electricity supplies by 2030. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, critics have complained that Starmer has shied away from the kind of bold reforms needed to address the many systemic issues facing the country, notably in the health and education sectors. While he has succeeded in laying the blame for the country’s ills at the feet of the Tories, Thursday’s launch compounded the impression that Labour represents an alternate captain for the ship of state, not an alternative course.

Don’t expect Labour to deviate from what increasingly looks like a winning strategy. With the Tories seemingly unable to close the still staggering gap, Captain Caution will have no incentive to provide anyone with the pesky details of his agenda for Britain before the next King’s Speech. But this approach is likely to demotivate voters, potentially driving down turnout on 4 July and potentially undermining Starmer’s inevitable claim to have a radical mandate for change.

Sunak’s hail mary manifesto

Go ahead, write down anything you’ve ever wanted from a government. All done? Well, congratulations, you’ve just written a manifesto that has as much chance of becoming reality as that of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative Party.

But enough of our cynicism…

Tuesday’s policy-packed hail mary of a Tory manifesto was Rishi Sunak’s last roll of the dice. Against the alarming backdrop of Reform drawing level with (and since overtaking) the Tories in the polls, it was therefore no surprise to see a flurry of pledges designed to win drag wavering voters out of Nigel’s embrace. 

As far as channel changers go…


Right, where were we? Oh right, the Tory manifesto. 

Amongst the headline pledges was one to develop a ‘regular rhythm’ of flights deporting illegal migrants to Rwanda (at the bargain price of only £1.8m per individual) despite ongoing legal challenges to the scheme - as well as a legal cap on migration. No wonder the manifesto was labelled as ‘wishful thinking’ by the FT.

In addition to the smattering of pledges already announced, like those on national service (that went well), defence spending, and the triple-lock plus, the manifesto also sought to reestablish the Tories as the party of law and order, with new measures to build four new prisons and recruit another 8000 police and community support officers.

The manifesto’s main message, however, was on affordability. With the reduction in inflation the only one of Sunak five pledges to have been met, he afforded a raft of measures to help with the cost of living. The key pledge was to deliver £17 bn in tax cuts each year, something which Sunak claims will be paid for by £12 bn a year in cuts to welfare along with cracking down on tax evasion and reductions in civil service numbers. The commitment to lower taxes gives the Conservatives an opportunity to position themselves as the tax-cutting party (conveniently ignoring the impact of frozen tax thresholds). It also allows them to brand Labour as a party that will make voters pay more in tax. 

There was also a belated attempt to appeal to younger voters with several policies around housing including; increasing the stamp duty threshold, removing capital gains tax for landlords who sell their house to their tenant, and the launch of a renewed Help to Buy programme. But with only 14% of 18-25 year olds planning to vote Conservative, it is fair to say that ship has well and truly sailed.

Sunak’s manifesto launch aimed to regain the momentum and start to close the gap on Labour. That requires him to show that his party still has the ideas and energy required to lead the country, even after 14 years in charge. It means persuading apathetic Tories to support him rather than stay at home, to persuade independents that Starmer is not offering a credible alternative, and to coax would-be Reform voters back into the fold by making clear that a vote for Farage is a vote for Starmer. 

By any stretch of the imagination, that is a tough sell. Ultimately, the Conservatives’ manifesto reflects a high-risk, high-reward strategy that seeks to contrast starkly with Labour, relying on bold promises and a populist appeal to sway a sceptical electorate. And only time will tell. After all, the only poll that matters is polling day. 

Meanwhile, the Lib Dem larks continue

From the staid to the plain silly, the Lib Dem campaign has provided some of the more entertaining moments so far in the battle for No10. Ed Davey having a makeover on morning television? Ed Davey getting dunked in water (multiple times)? Oh my…

Their manifesto launch on Monday saw healthcare take centre stage, with plans to ensure GP appointments within seven days and to increase the number of full-time GPs by 8,000. They also proposed a Carer’s Minimum Wage, increases to the Carer’s Allowance, along with free personal care for the elderly and disabled. 

The focus on healthcare made sense given the Lib Dems campaign thus far. Ed Davey’s water slide antics have helped his party grab some much needed attention, which their leader has put to good use, speaking passionately about his experiences as a young man caring for his parents and as a father for his disabled son. This has resonated with voters and boosted Davey’s profile (no bad thing given that polls suggest the Lib Dems might gain as many as 40 seats), with YouGov polling indicating that almost half (48%) of Brits think that health is the most important issue facing the country. 

Speaking of predictable policies, the Lib Dems have also committed to introducing a proportional representation system (the 2011 AV referendum mark 2), reaching net zero by 2045, and maintaining the triple lock. The clamp down on water companies was also expected given how vocal Davey has been about pollution issues. 

They were at pains to hide more surprising policies in the penultimate pages of the manifesto, with commitments to seek re-entry into the European Union's single market and expression of a "longer-term ambition" to rejoin the EU tucked in the final pages of the plan. This was a bold move to appeal to the many ‘remoaners’ from all parties, for whom leaving the EU still dominates. 

Davey was at pains to emphasise that the manifesto had been fully costed, with costs met through a combination of an overhaul of capital gains tax (to generate £5.2 billion for the NHS by 2028-29), implementing a windfall tax on the super-profits of oil and gas producers, and reversing tax breaks on bank profits. Additionally, they proposed saving £7.2 billion by tackling tax avoidance and evasion and reforming aviation taxes on international flights to raise £3.6 billion.

However, how much does this affect anyone? Electoral Calculus predicts the Lib Dems will jump from winning 11 seats in 2019 to 44 on 4 July. In the best case scenario, it forecasts Ed winning as many as 58 seats, more than Nick Clegg won in 2010 at the height of his popularity. However, with Labour’s predicted gains as high as they are, it is unlikely that the Lib Dems will be called upon again to be coalition king-makers. But the retail appeal of some of these pledges is likely to cost the Conservatives dearly in marginal seats they will be desperate to cling on to, especially in the south west. 

Happy voting!


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