This was the week that every party policy wonk dreads: the one when the manifestos are published. As the person who wrote the 2010 Conservative offering, I can tell you that the overriding emotion on launch day is neither elation at a job completed nor hope that voters might be persuaded by your proposals, but fear. Fear that in some way you’ve screwed up and are about to be found out by the only people who do read the manifestos – the media and your opponents.
The best case scenario is a few spelling errors. Worst case scenario is that you’ve pledged something unaffordable, undoable or – as the Conservatives managed this week with their pledge to upgrade the A11 – something that’s already happened. All the authors of the manifestos will be hoping that, as another former Tory manifesto writer, Andrew Lansley, once said to me, “the dog doesn’t bark”. So far the hounds are behaving.
The reason for the quietness is that all parties have been mainly playing to their bases. Labour tried to impress upon the public that it had changed its tune on fiscal matters and had learned the way of responsibility, while the Conservatives promised £8 billion more for the NHS. The Lib Dems refused to draw any policy ‘red lines’ and, with just a hint of desperation, opened themselves up to working with almost anyone to form a stable government. But the political cross-dressing was short lived, with leaders resorting to their standard policy areas and attacks on the other leaders.
Anyway, the launch of manifesto proposals comes far too late to influence anyone’s decision about how they’ll vote. Instead voters will make their decisions based on long-held views about the parties, their leaders and their reputations. It takes years if not decades of sustained effort to change people’s reflexive views of the parties, and hard won reputations can disappear overnight. Just look what the 1992 crash did to the Tories and the 2008 crash to Labour.
So if the manifestos are unlikely to change anyone’s minds, what on earth is their purpose? Actually, they are incredibly important documents. In the past, when elections tended to deliver majorities, manifestos mattered because the Salisbury Convention holds that any manifesto policy should not, ultimately, be rejected by the Lords. As, seemingly, we are yet again in hung Parliament territory, the purpose of the manifestos has changed. They now represent the initial moves in the long, complex game of political chess that each of the three main party leaders thinks will put them into power.
How that game plays out is a subject for another day, but it will depend not only on the distribution of Commons seats but also on the untested procedures set out in the Fixed Term Parliament Act. These have the potential to turn the post-election period into an unholy bun fight, with the possibility of a second general election by early July.
Chief Policy Advisor
Share of the vote
In a direct challenge to Labour, Cameron declared in his manifesto speech that the Conservatives are “the party of working people”.
During Thursday’s debate, all the opposition leaders criticised David Cameron for his absence, with Miliband condemning the PM for not “turning up for the job interview”. Meanwhile, #Where’sDave? was trending on Twitter through the BBC broadcast.
Labour’s manifesto promised no policy would involve additional borrowing, the party would cut the deficit every year, and they would get the national debt falling and a surplus on the current budget as soon as possible in the next parliament.
The Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies criticised the lack of clarity in Labour’s fiscal plans, saying “Literally we would not know what we were voting for if we were going to vote for Labour”.
Good coverage of Clegg’s warnings about the dangers of “BluKip” – a right wing alliance of the Conservatives, UKIP and DUP
A ComRes poll for ITV suggesting that 14 Lib Dem seats in their traditional heartland of the south-west could swing to the Conservatives.
A further televised debate for the leaders of the political parties that do not make up the Coalition Government was broadcast live on Thursday night. This gave leaders of the minor parties a level footing with The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband.
During the televised debate on Thursday night, SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon said that she would only back a Labour government if it rejected austerity and any private involvement in the NHS. Ed Miliband rejected her offer to “work together to lock David Cameron out of Downing Street,” saying there were “profound differences” between them.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney launched the SNP’s Jobs Manifesto this week. It set out how SNP MPs would support the creation of more and better paid jobs in Scotland and across the UK by increasing infrastructure spending, supporting small businesses and raising the minimum wage to £8.70/hr by 2020.
UKIP launched their manifesto on Wednesday with the rallying cry “Believe in Britain.” They claimed their manifesto was fully costed and independently verified by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Its main policies included a rise in the defence budget, a rise in the personal allowance to £13,000 by 2020 and an immediate exit from the EU.
Plaid Cymru called on Labour to end their perceived support for the Conservative’s programme of austerity. Party leader Leanne Wood argued that the UK’s budget deficit should instead be eliminated through a programme of job creation and infrastructure investment.
The Green Party launched its manifesto on Tuesday. Its central focus is to govern “for the common good,” promising an end to austerity and to bring about a more equal, democratic and humane society through a “peaceful political revolution.”
Mentions on manifesto launch days
In the battle of the hashtags in manifesto week, there were 27.6% more mentions of #ConservativeManifesto than #LabourManifesto. On Tuesday there were also 12,387 mentions of the #RighttoBuy hashtag, referring to the Conservative’s key policy pledge to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants. This hashtag, alongside #ConservativeManifesto and #VoteConservative, were all tweeted out by the main @Conservatives Twitter account throughout the manifesto launch day, providing focal points for online users to generate conversation. In contrast, on Labour Party manifesto day, no such obvious policy hook was on show. The main Labour Party Twitter account, instead of promoting key standalone party policies, tweeted visual content on the Conservative Party’s unfunded promises. Tweets on the manifesto itself were largely quotes from Ed Miliband’s speech, with no policy specific hashtags or mention of the #LabourManifesto hashtag. The content criticising the Tories was popular and gained significant engagement – but the party arguably missed an opportunity to focus user attention on its main manifesto policies.
The save Ed campaign has already been launched – John Rentoul, The Independent
It’s too soon to put the party back into UK politics – Janan Ganesh, Financial Times
Tories’ right to buy is great but the real solution is to build more homes – Allister Heath, Daily Telegraph
Tory economic plans rely on the very growth they threaten to stifle – Larry Elliot, The Guardian
The political class must think we’re all idiots – Philip Collins, The Times
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Measurement and evaluation