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General election 2024: Seven things we learned from the smaller parties’ manifestos

The IfG expert team review the Lib Dem, SNP, Green, Reform UK, Plaid and Northern Irish parties’ manifestos

Parties' signs at a polling station
All parties have now launched their manifestos as voters in the UK prepare to head to the polls on Thursday 4 July.

Most political parties have no chance of winning a majority in parliament, but their manifestos – which have been launched over the last week – set out distinct proposals for anyone who may not be voting for one of the “big two”.

Our IfG experts share what they learned from these manifestos, highlight the most interesting ideas, pick out the more unrealistic pledges, and identify the themes from the smaller parties’ policy ideas.

Manifestos display a range of approaches to managing public services

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto sets out arguably the most extensive set of policies on public services. As with Labour’s manifesto, it often correctly diagnoses the problems facing public services, but goes further than Labour by providing more thorough explanations for how the Lib Dems plan to tackle them. On adult social care in particular, the Lib Dems present by far the most detailed set of proposals. They discuss the difficulties faced by unpaid carers, an issue ignored by other parties.

The Greens make some of the most eye-catching spending pledges of any party, increasing day-to-day (RDEL) spending by 22.5% (£99.2bn) compared to the current 2025/26 spending plans. More than £30bn of that would be spent on health and social care, including introducing free personal care, reversing the cuts to the public health grant, and improving access to mental health services. However, the Green manifesto has very little to say on solving the prisons crisis, arguably the single most pressing public service issue for the next government.

Reform UK’s “contract” is not a serious document for the management of public services. Many policies seem to be inspired by lazy media tropes – for example, cutting NHS management – that would actively harm performance in public services. Other policies – such as calling for an inquiry into ‘vaccine harms’ and moving away from ‘woke policing’ – are conspiracy theories re-badged as a programme for government.

While the major parties offer slightly different paths to net zero in 2050, the smaller parties range from extreme ambition to ditching the objective altogether

The scale of ambition is noticeable in the Liberal Democrat, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green manifestos, with the Liberal Democrats and SNP promising net zero by 2045, the Greens before 2040 and Plaid Cymru by 2035.

These targets are very ambitious, but they offer no new big ideas on how they will be met. The UK is not currently on track to hit net zero by 2050 or meet its nearer-term targets, while Scotland has pushed back its 2030 target of 75% lower emissions. And while the manifestos set out various environmental policies that would be beneficial, without bolder plans and ideas it is not clear that these are credible or realistic targets.

Reform UK rejects the need for action, promising to ditch net zero targets, which it sees as ‘crippling our economy’, though its analysis is based on an inaccurate assessment that  renewables are ‘not cheaper’ (the latest cost estimates from the government are between £28 and £44 per MWh for wind and solar, versus £114 for CCGT gas turbines). 6  Instead it offers measures to ‘protect our environment with more tree planting, more recycling and less single use plastics’. These are worthy proposals, but not in line with the scale of the challenge.

Smaller parties across the UK back reform to devolution and the Union

Unsurprisingly, both the Scottish and Welsh nationalist manifestos include a range of proposals for strengthening devolution. Plaid Cymru echo the findings of the Independent Commission on the Future of Wales, including a call for full transfer of justice powers, which the Liberal Democrats also favour. The SNP call for full fiscal devolution alongside powers over migration, social security and energy regulation.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru also reiterate their ultimate intention to secure independence. Plaid propose a green paper on how to reach that destination and the SNP restates its claim that winning a majority of Scottish seats would empower the Scottish government to begin immediate negotiations with Westminster. 

This claim bears no legal weight, and the political reality is that no prospective prime minister is likely to sign off on a referendum in the next parliament. The SNP also reiterate that it would lead an independent Scotland back into the European Union, a move which would create a new hard border with England, its largest trade partner.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin’s manifesto urges the government to set a date for a border poll. Polling from 2022 suggests only a third of people are in favour of reunification, so it seems unlikely that the next UK government will face serious pressure to schedule a border poll. Meanwhile, the DUP commits to continuing to challenge the Irish Sea Border.

As for the smaller UK-wide parties, the Liberal Democrats reaffirm their longstanding commitment to a federal constitution for the UK, while the Green party espouse the principle of national self-determination for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak debate

Regulation and quangos are reluctantly embraced

Some manifestos reinforce public scepticism about regulation and public bodies. Reform UK, in particular, wants to cut red tape and nanny state regulations. But with the fat having been trimmed steadily over decades, such proposals will only be credible when the specific functions or bodies that will be lost are set out. Some manifestos moot the abolition of prominent bodies: the Liberal Democrats pledge to replace Ofwat with ‘a tough new regulator’ to tackle sewage, whilst the Greens plan to abolish Ofsted. But proposals for new bodies are more prevalent, notably from the Liberal Democrats who propose a National Care Agency, Online Crime Agency and a National Body for SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), among others.

Policy priorities also feed through to objective-setting for public bodies: Reform pledge to scrap net zero objectives for infrastructure bodies, whereas the FCA would need to have regard to financial inclusion under the Liberal Democrats, and to restrict fossil fuel investment under the Greens.

Looking across the manifestos, it is clear that regulation can be either a scapegoat or a policy tool – but it cannot easily be both. A government that wants to deliver more through regulators may first need to rehabilitate them in the public mind.

Proportional representation remains popular among the smaller parties

There are not many policy issues that Reform UK and the Green party agree on, but electoral reform is one. The current electoral system has produced many instances of parties winning far fewer seats than their vote share. Every manifesto except the Conservatives, Labour, the DUP and Sinn Fein’s 10-page ‘minifesto’ contains commitments to reforming the electoral system.

Interestingly there is some agreement among the parties on their preferred option with four (the Liberal Democrats, Alliance, SNP and Plaid Cymru) plumping for Single Transferable Vote (STV) – the system used to elect devolved legislatures in Northern Ireland. STV, while proportional, would retain a link between MPs and constituents.

Despite the prominence of electoral reform among these manifestos, the government holds the prerogative and there is little appetite for wholesale electoral reform for either of the larger parties.

The civil service only features as an implausible source of efficiency savings

Unsurprisingly the civil service does not feature heavily in the minor parties’ manifestos. Reform UK sees it a cash cow and a source of implausible savings, with a promise of “saving £5 in every £100” through its commitment to  “slash wasteful spending, cut bureaucracy, improve efficiency and negotiate better value procurement without touching frontline services”.

However, a Reform UK government would quickly discover that frontline services need more management oversight, and that cutting 5% from departmental budgets would mean real reductions in public sector pay and service provision, not just efficiency savings.

The Liberal Democrats helpfully propose that a new prime minister should develop a programme for government, and that it should be voted on as a confidence measure before taking office. The IfG has recommended that all new governments should develop such a programme for government – to be presented as part of the King’s Speech and voted on by Parliament. This would allow manifestos to be translated into a prioritised and managed programme.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto reflects the scandals in public life over recent years

The political scandals of recent years mean that ethical standards are higher up the agenda at this election. Like Labour, the Lib Dems would give the independent adviser on ministers’ interests the power to initiate their own investigations, rather than needing to seek permission from the prime minister. But they have also been more ambitious in other areas, committing to enshrine the ministerial code into law and to put the independent adviser on a statutory footing – reforms which the Institute has argued would strengthen the ethics regime in government. The Lib Dems have also taken on another IfG recommendation, on training and professional development for ministers, though they focus this specifically on “preventing sleaze”.

The Lib Dems have also gone further on lobbying. Among their proposals was one to “strengthen and expand the lobbying register”, which would most likely require legislation to amend the Lobbying Act 2014, while their response to the rise of WhatsApp in government is to propose that ministers would be obliged to publish details of lobbying via instant messages. The controversy over David Cameron’s texts on behalf of Lex Greensill 8  suggests that there are still gaps in the scrutiny of who has access to ministers and can influence their decisions.

General election 2024

Our analysis, explainers and events explore what happens before and during an election, how political parties and the civil service prepare for the outcome and what it means for government.

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Prime minister Rishi Sunak issues a statement outside 10 Downing Street, London, after calling a general election for 4 July.

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