May’s Election Maelstrom

At the time that Theresa May made her statement in front of Downing Street with opinion polls hovering around a 20 point lead to the Conservatives few could have predicted how this election campaign could have played out to a point now where one recent YouGov poll shows the gap as close as 5 points between Conservatives and Labour. For the Conservatives, this should have been a simple campaign – whilst a 20 point victory seemed unlikely the Conservatives were most definitely in the box seat and many saw the whole exercise as a foregone conclusion. Now just 9 days out from this snap Brexit election, Labour are carrying the strongest momentum they have had in years and are posing a significant threat to the Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn no longer appears overly incompetent in front of the cameras (though he still doesn’t deal well with more aggressive or hostile questioning) and when making his core stump speech the man that many (myself included) believed didn’t have a significant presence on a world stage is starting to look more and more a statesman.

For the Conservatives, even if they win this has to be a campaign to forget. If the final result comes even close to the YouGov poll cited above, this will still be the election for the Conservatives that they nearly blew a 20 point lead. Whilst the opening of the campaign was shambolic for Labour, the end of it has been no better for the Conservatives – and the turning point, the manifestos. We knew this would not be an election where people could not say that there was a difference between the parties and the manifestos proved this. We expected high spending from Labour funded by tax hikes on business and high earners whilst for the Conservatives we expected more of the same economically – meaning in real terms more restrictive spending and increased pressure on public services whilst maintaining lower tax levels, all whilst standing on a platform of a strong Brexit for Britain.

Upon the launch of the manifestos, that difference was accentuated – the two different taglines were front and centre. On Labour’s own little red book, ‘For the many, not the few’ is there on the cover whilst the phrase ‘strong and stable leadership’ is listed as the first of ‘Five Giant Challenges’ in the opening pages of the Conservative manifesto. Open up the contents and you see two drastically different documents. Labour’s manifesto is full of giveaways to the people – increased spending and increased borrowing to fund an ambitious plan of renationalisation and investment. Labour’s manifesto sets them on the warpath with big business and higher earners with corporation tax to be increased to 26% by the end of the Parliament, pulling more people into the additional rate of income tax by lowering the threshold to £80,000 and reintroducing a 50p tax rate on earnings over £123,000. Add to that an ‘Excessive Pay Levy’ it is clear to see that this manifesto will immediately be attractive to those generally opposed to high wages or feel as if they are underpaid. At the same time this money will be used to among other things to invest over £25bn into education alone with the founding of an ‘National Education Service’ which includes abolishing university tuition fees, introducing free FE tuition and increasing core schools funding. Attractive policies for not only parents and young people but strivers who work but want to develop further skills. This piece doesn’t have enough time to take a deep dive into every policy and costing but when you look overall at the manifesto, it is clear what is at the heart of it – social justice. At most points in the manifesto it is about the Government re-distributing wealth and spending on public services. Increasing education funding, increasing NHS funding, employing more police officers and scrapping certain reforms to welfare including the Spare Room Subsidy. Add to all of those spending commitments, nationalisation of rail, water, energy and the Royal Mail, a Real Living Wage of £10 an hour by 2020, guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and abolishing zero-hours contracts, the Labour Party manifesto paints a picture of a socialist democracy where the richest are taxed to pay for the many. It is undeniably attractive for many and has a core emotional connection of the State being proactive in stepping in to reduce individual responsibility for costs.

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What then, does this have to do with the Conservatives? The problem for the Conservatives is simple – they face a giveaway manifesto, a manifesto that promises investment, increased welfare and increased support for core services. Compared to that, a manifesto which pledges economic stability by being cautious if not downright restrictive in public spending doesn’t look as good. Simply put, fiscal conservatism, low tax and low government spending is not as sexy as a £10 an hour living wage or hitting fat cats hard. The Labour manifesto plays to the discontent that various people have at various parts of Britain today. The Conservative manifesto continues on the comparatively dull and responsible fiscal path we’ve been on since 2010. The Conservative manifesto is noticeably silent on investment in the police other than to create a ‘National Infrastructure Police Force’ and whilst the manifesto pledges investment of £4bn to the overall schools budget, a report by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that per pupil spending in schools across England will fall by 7% when cuts from the past two years are taken into account. Compare this to the IFS’ analysis of Labour’s plans which show per pupil spending up six percent. On tuition fees, where the Labour Party have pledged to scrap them, under the Conservatives fees have continued to increase. Of course, when you see Labour’s costing of this (over £11bn) it is easy to see why this pledge is not matched in the Conservative manifesto which focuses on spending within our means whilst maintaining a low tax society but nevertheless it is another stark contrast that can be drawn to compare to draw negative comparisons for the Conservatives between them and Labour on education policy. There is something else that is scarce in the Conservative manifesto – costings. For the apparently fiscally responsible party, on very few occasions do we actually see numbers attached to policies. Indeed, on a quick search through the manifesto, the pound sign (£) only appears 28 times. Perhaps this is an indicator of the lack of spending proposed by the Conservatives over the next parliament? That said, it is not like spending is entirely absent – the manifesto features a £23bn National Productivity Investment Fund, £40bn in road and rail infrastructure spending, £178bn in new military equipment £1bn on mental health spending, £2bn on social care spending and an additional £8bn for the NHS. Even on fiscal responsibility then, on the face of it at least, the Conservatives have been outdone by Labour when it comes to transparency on spending. Of course, there has been suggestion that Labour have got their sums wrong but as a maths teacher would say, at least they have shown their working…

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In many ways, these manifestos and indeed the ideologies of the Labour Party and the Conservatives for the next five years can be analogised and the analogy is this – a health kick. In 2010, we decided to try a health drive. We decided to start going to the gym and cutting out most fast food but couldn’t quite go all the way ourselves so we had more than a few cheat meals and nights out but on the whole we pretty much kept to our goals. In 2015, we got serious about the health kick and eliminated the relatively regular cheat meals, limited our alcohol intake and started to make progress to our goal. The problem is that through our healthy eating and regular gym sessions, we weren’t always having fun. The responsibility became the norm but it didn’t stop us from getting bored of the constant calorie counting and 6:30am gym sessions. We know it’s good for us but right now the personal trainer wants us to give a bit more, add in an extra session at the gym every day and we’re starting to get close to our breaking point. We see our friends and neighbours enjoying after-work drinks at the pub whilst we sit and have a non-alcoholic spritzer and we see them ordering the big burger when we eat out whilst we’re resigned to a salad. We may in theory be healthier but looking across the table, they don’t look in too bad shape and are having some fun as well. With the polls changing as drastically as they are now, a lot more people are ordering the burger. Deep down, I think many people will understand the importance of living within means and not overspending but after 7 years of reduced spending and pressure on public services, we’ve just about had enough. The responsibility and long term prospect isn’t as exciting as the juicy hamburger or free tuition fees we could be having now and therein lies a huge problem for the Conservatives. In a manifesto which pledges responsibility and conservative public spending but does little to show individual benefit there is little incentive to vote Conservative for those who will either be directly affected by Labour’s giveaways or by those who feel as if their living standards have fallen since the Conservatives took office in 2010.

Not only do the Conservatives have to fight a battle with a less than exciting manifesto which pledges little in the way of exciting spending or significant policy overhaul, but since the manifesto launches, the Conservatives seem to have been all at sea with infighting and ‘clarifications’ making the headlines and certain manifesto pledges in the eyes of some, reinforcing the ‘Nasty Party’ image. In a campaign where the the Conservatives needed to play at best modest offence and good defence, they have found themselves in the past week scoring own goals. The biggest unforced error has to be in relation to what has now been labelled the ‘Dementia Tax’. The policy relating to the payment of at-home care in the later stages of life drew heavy criticism for the potential impact of changing the way in which at-home care was means tested to include a person’s house meaning that more people would have to pay. This policy was within four days ‘clarified’ so as to have an overall cap on the cost of care added. This policy as a whole has turned into a PR nightmare. At the same time as the Conservatives attempt to assert their credentials on social care with £2bn in spending on the area, this policy and its handling has completely muddied the waters to the point that the more present part of the Conservative Party policy on social care isn’t the investment but rather the new ‘tax’. What make these own goals worse for the Conservatives is that they are completely unforced. Take something as simple as the free vote on fox hunting. Two lines in the manifesto drew significant negative headlines and now see Twitter replete with memes and protest images that pull on voters at an emotional and moral level.

We will grant a free vote, on a government bill in government time, to give parliament the opportunity to decide the future of the Hunting Act.

Conservative Party Manifesto, p26

This is a classic example of a published manifesto pledge that makes it easy for the Conservatives and Theresa May to be relentlessly mocked on social media and can easily feature in lists of policies that again create the image of the Conservatives being the ‘Nasty Party’. Not only do the policies open the Conservatives up to ridicule and attacks on social media but uncomfortable performances such as that of Theresa May taking questions from the audience in last night’s Channel 4/Sky News special don’t help. We know that the Prime Minister isn’t the best in front of an audience that isn’t her own and last night only accentuated that – she was facing attack left, right and centre for cuts to the NHS, the ‘Dementia Tax’ and other broken pledges. That in itself wasn’t the problem – that is part and parcel of trying to defend a record of austerity to people who have been affected by it. The problem was another unforced error – this time when the PM said that Labour’s sums didn’t add up. The audience was quick to jump on that and heckle that Labour at least had costings and as noted above, the Conservatives haven’t show any of theirs.

With these unforced errors and a wholly underwhelming manifesto, it is hardly surprising that Labour are surging in the polls whilst the Conservatives are struggling to stay afloat. The funny thing is that at the moment, Theresa May’s saving grace is coming from the most unlikely of places – the SNP. As long as the SNP have a strong grip on Scotland, it makes Labour’s task that much harder. The problem for Labour is that unfortunately for them it is not as simple as a uniform swing across the UK as Scotland’s politics now diverge so greatly from those of the rest of the UK. Absolutely Scotland is more left wing than the rest of the UK, but the difference is that there is a fierce nationalist sentiment and it is that sentiment that will see SNP MPs elected in place of Labour MPs. As long as Labour fail to win in Scotland, it seems unlikely that they will take a majority at Westminster.

As this campaign draws into its final stages, if I was in Conservative Party HQ right now I would be worried – very worried. I would be hoping that the polls were as wrong as they were in 2015 and that in a similar fashion to the US election last year that they were missing quiet conservatives that will turn out and vote Blue on June 8th. I don’t think it is an understatement to say that since the manifesto launch, whilst Labour have basked in a surge in support and a mobilised movement on social media, the Conservatives have languished and looked lacklustre. In a campaign that has in recent weeks been filled with own goals by the Conservatives if polls continue to move as they are now, it still could be that the greatest own goal of them all was scored at the start of this campaign and that was getting the whole thing started in the first place.