Sunday, 24 November 2019

Do Manifestos Matter?

Manifestos can sway voters in a general election, but this tends to be the result of an emblematic proposal that captures the public imagination or a more general sense that a party is either bereft of ideas or perhaps too full of them. Labour's commitment to the NHS in 1945 or May's misstep in 2017 over social care would be positive and negative examples of the former, while the Tories' (forgettable) offering in 1997 or Labour's (actually quite fascinating) 1983 manifesto are examples of the latter. One of the more dreary features of the post-Thatcher political landscape was the shift in the format and style of manifestos away from the earnest pamphlet of old to the glossy, vacuous corporate brochure, which held sway until 2015. This was both performative neoliberalism, with its recasting of voters as shareholders in UK Plc, and a conscious attempt to narrow the window of the possible to the managerial and the gestural: lots of abstract nouns and pictures of relatable people.

Labour's 2017 iteration broke with this pattern and attempted to reconnect with the older tradition of substantive argument, though its impact was less to do with any specific proposals and more to do with a general sense that a more activist state was once more conceivable. The 2019 version has built on this, but I doubt it will tip the balance in next month's vote despite the high hopes of party members. It is an impressive offer, both in terms of its desired outcomes and the rigour of its argument, but for the vast majority of voters it will be distilled down to "free broadband" (a great idea to some, a sign of madness to others) and a generalised sense of "spend more" (ditto). The chief lesson of 2017 is that a manifesto matters most when it shows that a party has misjudged the popular mood, as the Conservatives did with the "dementia tax". Ironically this was the same lesson that the parties learnt after the 1980s, which was what led to the creeping blandness. I don't think we'll see a repeat of this shift in the coming years.

The Tories clearly have no intention of repeating their 2017 mistake so their manifesto, launched today, is little more than "Get Brexit done" backed up by pledges to not raise taxes while promising to invest a little more in public services. This betrays a severe lack of imagination, but their current strategy as a party depends on making a fetish out of Brexit and having the consequential sunlit uplands monopolise all dreams of the future. In terms of an electoral coalition, the plan is to absorb both the populist right and elements of the traditionalist left while hanging on to their core of well-off voters. This is probably a temporary manoeuvre, not least because that coalition is too contradictory to persist. The plan will be to tack back towards a more orthodox centre-right position post-election, but circumstances may leave the party stranded further out on the right unless it can win a large enough majority to discount potential rebels such as the ERG as trade talks with the EU grind on.

The Conservatives haven't written off remainers who would traditionally have voted for them, but the party is making little effort to hang on to this bloc for now, hence the routine "spending bombshell" attacks on Labour have been undermined by fiscal giveaways and vagueness over spending plans intended to reassure leavers concerned about the NHS, while the nods towards traditional liberal concerns have been replaced by increasingly reactionary noises around crime and national security. The electoral coalition built by Cameron - fiscally conservative and socially liberal - is broken, but it's still not clear whether the defenestration of the likes of Hammond, Gauke and Grieve represents a lasting divide on the right or whether they will drift back into the fold once the smoke clears. The best chance of a rapprochement happening might be through a second referendum decisively settling matters, which ironically means a Labour victory. If Johnson wins the election, Brexit will continue to warp politics for at least a decade or more.

Since the victory of the Orange Bookers, the Liberal Democrat's strategy has been to replace the Tories on the centre right, which explains their continuing lack of contrition over the coalition years. As Johnson tacks to the nationalist right, they aim to attract not only remainers but centre-right conservatives who want minimal change to their comfortable lives, hence the demonisation of Corbyn, the commitment to budget surpluses and the enthusiasm for Trident. The unwillingness to stand aside for strongly pro-EU Labour candidates indicates that taking seats from the Tories matters more than achieving a Commons majority for a second referendum. Despite the indulgence of the liberal media, Jo Swinson has proved to be far less popular than her supporters anticipated, but this has little to do with her rebarbative HR manager persona. As the BBC Question Time special on Friday proved, many voters are still disgusted by the coalition and now doubly offended by the arrogance of "Bollocks to Brexit". That vote in the European Parliament election looks less and less representative as each day passes.

The Liberal Democrats' current electoral strategy is predicated on winning back seats lost to the Tories in 2015, though this may prove a struggle in leave-supporting areas such as the South West. The "remain alliance" with the Greens and Plaid Cymru is intended to maximise "progressive" votes in these target areas, though there are rumours that it has gone down like a cup of cold sick among the activists who get the vote out. The high profile candidacies in metropolitan seats like Kensington and the Cities of London and Westminster look superficially like loss-leaders intended to achieve national media prominence. However, given that the Liberal Democrats are actively courting conservative remainers and presenting themselves implicitly as the continuity Cameron and Osborne candidates, they could sneak through the middle in some constituencies in the capital. More likely, they will hinder Labour and deliver seats like Putney and Battersea to the Tories.

The outcome of the 2019 general election has probably been determined by two events over the last week or so. The first was the decision of Nigel Farage to let the Tories off the hook in Conservative held seats. Many of the votes the Tories will gain are in constituencies they were always likely to hold, but this shift will probably prove crucial in some marginals. In other words, Labour's hope of taking seats directly from the Tories through a split leave vote has evaporated. In its own seats, Labour must hope that the Brexit Party is more effective in taking votes from the Conservatives by appealing to hardcore leavers, but the fear is that it becomes a protest vote for Labour leavers who would otherwise not vote for the Tories. That said, Farage's contribution to the election result looks like it will be no more significant than it was in 2015. The flaw in the Brexit Party's strategy, assuming it was serious about holding the balance of power, was that it was always more likely to win seats by directly challenging the Tories in heavily pro-leave areas in the South, as UKIP successfully did in Clacton.

The second event is the decline of the Liberal Democrats, which was predictable. The party has been on a downward trend in opinion polls since the beginning of October, when it peaked at 21%, which means it predates the decision to call the election. The party had been around the 20% mark since June, having bumped along at nearer 10% in the first quarter of the year before rising in the aftermath of the second extension of the Article 50 process. The decline that started in early October coincided with the widespread expectation that a general election would be called as the prospect of the government getting a deal approved in time to meet the deadline of the end of the month started to recede. Nothing that the Liberal Democrats subsequently did managed to arrest that decline, and on current trend it looks like the party will be back to 10% by the 12th of December. The clear beneficiary of this fall, and a similarly predictable decline in support for the Green Party, has been Labour. The manifesto may well have aided this among the politically-engaged, but the bigger factor for most voters has simply been the realisation that it's a two horse race. The problem for Labour is that while the Brexit Party has all but evaporated as a threat to the Tories, the Liberal Democrats remain likely to split the anti-Tory vote across the country.

What this means is that while Labour will probably narrow the gap, the Tories are still on course to gain the largest share of the vote and probably a majority in seats. There is no sign yet of their support dropping back into the danger territory below 40%. A more rapid collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, back to the sub-8% levels seen in the last two elections, would help Labour close the gap, however a bigger effect in terms of seats won or lost could arise if the strong support for the Conservatives indicated in opinion polls is undermined by lower turnout on the day. Leave won in 2016 because it motivated disaffected electors. Some of those will be supporting the Tories now, but they are a soft bloc that could shift to abstention if the party mishandles the campaign. Some may be happy to voice support in opinion polls as a way of indicating their support for leave, but might balk at actually electing a Tory MP. This is the corollary of left-of-centre voters supporting the Lib Dems over Spring and Summer as a way of performing their commitment to remain.

My guess is that the result will be closer to 2017 than the polls currently suggest, but that the Tories will do marginally better and Labour marginally worse than two years ago. This will deliver a modest Conservative majority in the Commons which will be sufficient to see the UK exit the European Union at the end of January. The banter rules mean that popular support for Brexit will then steadily decline over the year as the actual consequences in terms of trade and jobs start to become clear. Meanwhile, the clamour for Jeremy Corbyn's resignation among the usual suspects will be deafening, but the result will in no way justify the claim that with Jess Phillips in charge the party would have romped home. The bottom line is that Labour has won the battle of the manifestos, but the Tories don't care. They reckon that the war will be won by the battle of the slogans and they may well be right. It's Time for Real Change will chime with many, but Get Brexit Done has the benefit of immediacy and for many of its supporters appears to be a more tangible change than free broadband or more council houses. Naturally I hope I'm wrong.

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