How manifesto week offered an echo of elections past

Michael Dowsett, Associate Director 

This week has seen four manifesto launches and the halfway point passed in this general election campaign. With the polls still pointing to a potentially historic result on several counts, the launch of the different parties’ prospectuses for the nation will have been seen as one of the few moments where each of them could shift the dial, consolidate recent gains or try and claw their way back into the race.

Speaking in Manchester yesterday, Keir Starmer emphasised the gradualist nature of Labour’s offering, standing in stark contrast to the party’s last two manifestos in 2017 and 2019. Following a decade and a half in opposition and sitting on a commanding poll lead, this is unsurprising, though if Labour’ standing does slip back in the next few weeks many will attribute it to a failure to grasp the deep appetite for change that exists in the country as Corbyn did in 2017, particularly if this is to the benefit of one of the smaller parties.

Despite the ‘steady as she goes’ vibes around Labour’s manifesto though, a closer inspection of the party’s prescriptions suggests a future Starmer government’s radicalism could be hiding in plain sight – whether that’s on NHS reform, tax or constitutional change. The risk is, though a risk-averse campaign may win Labour more seats, a new Labour government could find itself on the wrong side of public opinion very quickly if voters feel they haven’t given a mandate for controversial moves, however merited they may be. Just look at the trouble the Johnson government got into in 2021 over planning reform, for example.

Perhaps Labour are also learning a lesson from 2010, where the then Conservative opposition ran on a platform of spending cuts which many think cost them a Commons majority on polling day. The Conservatives also used their manifesto that year to make a wider critique about where 13 years of New Labour had left the country, issuing an invitation to ‘join the government of Britain’. Does this year’s Labour manifesto – simply entitled ‘Change’ – leave an unprotected flank by refusing to convey why Labour is the change the country is looking for?

Using a manifesto launch to gain a mandate for contentious policy moves can of course be taken too far. Not only did the social care plan unveiled mid-way through the 2017 campaign lose Theresa May her majority, it arguably set the cause of social care reform back many years to the detriment of the country as a whole. It’s unsurprising then that, as in 2019, the Conservatives opted for a manifesto peppered with ‘retail’ offers to key voter groups, whether that be an enhanced Triple Lock for pensioners or Stamp Duty breaks for first time buyers.

Unlike five years ago though, this year’s Tory blueprint is without the overarching coherence provided by the ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra, and is principally designed to clawback at least some support before polling day. Indeed, the focus of coverage of the Conservative manifesto on commitments that weren’t in it, namely a tougher line on potential withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and bolder pledges on tax cuts, means its legacy is likely to be as a curtain raiser on the post-mortem the party has in opposition as it seeks to navigate the road to recovery.

Though the victor of this election seems like a foregone conclusion, what still sets the Labour and Conservative manifestos apart from those published by the minor parties is that they are treated as the offerings of potentially the next government of the country. Conversely, this gives the smaller parties the licence to use a manifesto launch to speak to the smaller group of voters they are targeting, or shine a light on an electorally salient issue where they sense opportunity due to failure by one of the two governing parties.

For example, the Green Party’s more ambitious tax and climate change pledges would be unlikely to make the cut for a party looking to garner over 40% of the vote, but are likely to be attractive to the group of voters who feel Labour under Keir Starmer has moved too far to the right.

Similarly, the value of Reform UK’s manifesto – when it’s launched next week – will be more in whether it emphasises to Conservative voters what they see as the current government’s failure on immigration rather than in presenting a comprehensive agenda for the next government.

The Liberal Democrats’ offer, standing at a length 117 pages, is more a testament to the party’s long-established and heavily consultative policy development process, than an expectation that their MPs will once again be brandishing Ministerial red boxes after 4 July.

This year’s election manifestos once again shine a light on the shifting fortunes of the main political parties – from popular government seeking re-election to insurgent looking to return to power – and the cyclical nature of this dynamic, with Labour and the Conservatives swapping places over the years.

In the event of a Labour government, perhaps those looking for early clues as to the shape of the 2029 manifestoes should look no further than 2015, where a party seeking to return to office after five years faced up against a government seeking re-election after fulfilling a doctor’s mandate. As to a repetition of the result, maybe the smaller parties – as with UKIP in the 2010 Parliament – will have a large say on that, even if their manifestoes haven’t grabbed the headlines this week.

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