Aspiration and policy

In the most presidential of British elections, the leaked Labour manifesto did at least give some respite to the incessant ‘Theresa vs Jeremy’ narrative. Not that the ability and capability of the Prime Minister isn’t important – of course it is – but the introduction of policy, any policy, was a welcome change in setting out the platforms of the individual parties. And in making sure the election isn’t focused around the single issue of Brexit.

Yesterday we had the official launch of Labour’s manifesto – although we’d seen much of it after a leak to the Daily Telegraph’s Kate McCann. Today we’ve see the launch of the Lib Dem’s manifesto. And then, the Tories will set out what they’re offering.

You could be forgiven thus far though for thinking it as some sort of great giveaway based on the published manifestos and the policies the various parties have endeavoured to trail in the media. But while the move from the personality contest to a compare/contrast of policy is welcome, numerous policy offerings have been almost immediately debunked. An energy cap, said the Tories. Prices will still rise, said experts. More money for the NHS, scrapped tuition fees, and nationalised industries, said Labour. The tax increases intended to pay for them might not yield the necessary return, said the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Today the Lib Dems manifesto includes ‘rent to own’ schemes to tackle home ownership and reduce the cost of bus passes for 16 to 21 year-olds. Meanwhile, Theresa May has suggested tolls on the Severn Bridge could be abolished.

All of these promises sound great in theory. The question is whether they can be achieved in practice.

The difficulty for the electorate is that, with just three weeks before polling day, so many of these policy pledges are designed to be attention and vote-grabbing soundbites. This makes the role of organisations such as the IFS all the more important – but also requires voters to interrogate the various party platforms to see what is a commitment, what is an aspiration, and what is entirely unrealistic.

In the longer-term, voters would benefit from a far more robust process of vetting and examining party manifesto content. There was brief discussion before the 2015 General Election of subjecting each of the main parties’ manifestos for analysis by the Office of Budget Responsibility – the government agency responsible for providing the Treasury with its official growth figures. At the time, the suggestion was swiftly dismissed on account of the resources required by the OBR to examine manifestos in detail. But, looking ahead to 2022, there is considerable merit in using the next five years (assuming the government of the day can wait that long before calling another election) to ensure the OBR has the resources it needs to perform that job.

Using what is an independent body to forensically examine the financial commitments being made by the main political parties would add a much needed and very welcome robustness to the election process. It would complement the important analysis undertaken by the likes of the IFS, but would enable voters to have far greater certainty that they’ll get the policies they’re voting for.