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Labour and the Conservatives might regret ducking the most difficult choices in their manifestos

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have not said how they would address implausible spending plans.

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak debate
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have set out their narratives, but big questions still remain over how their plans add up.

There are moments of encouragement to be found in the manifestos of both main parties – but also a credibility gap running through both Labour and Conservative plans for government, warns Hannah White

Labour’s manifesto, launched in Manchester, was emblazoned with the single word “Change”. The Conservatives’ manifesto, released at Silverstone racetrack, was adorned with a tri-partite slogan beginning with a “Clear plan”. These themes – already rehearsed by the parties ahead of their manifesto launches – ran throughout the documents, setting the context for their ambitions. This is welcome – to be a credible foundation on which to govern, a manifesto must first set direction and, outline the outcomes your plans will seek to deliver.  

The Conservatives’ ‘stay the course’ message was accompanied by a number of detailed pledges – some with specific targets, such as on net zero and housing. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a party in power, despite many of the commitments being billed as ‘new’, many reflect a continuation of existing government policy.

In making the case for “change”, the Labour manifesto was shorter, with fewer specific pledges and detail limited to a few key areas, framed around missions. Labour’s focus – again, not unexpected from an opposition – was on setting out a diagnosis of the challenges facing the country, and a broad approach for fixing them.

But while the two main parties have each constructed a clear narrative, neither have chosen to grapple with the consequences of the implausible spending plans to which they have committed.

Neither decided to grapple with the hardest choices waiting for the winner

Each party’s manifesto was accompanied by a costings document setting out how they would pay for their new spending commitments. Superficially their figures add up, though both sets of calculations are predicated on optimistic assumptions about savings from tax avoidance.

But the gaping hole in both parties’ manifestos is a reckoning with the scale and severity of the fiscal problems that will confront whoever wins the election. Neither party left themselves much wiggle room to deal with what the IfG has called ‘the precarious state of the state’. The Conservative party chose to make tax cuts the focus of its manifesto – with much of the £18bn head room it created from proposed savings being used for a further 2% cut to NICs. The few specific tax rises Labour put forward to raise revenue were largely swallowed up by its new spending commitments. Both parties have tied their own hands by ruling out raising the three largest taxes, though Labour has not ruled out changes to others, including capital gains tax and council tax.

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Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak during the ITV leaders debate.

Whoever forms the next government will look back at the manifesto as a missed opportunity

An election is an opportunity to win a mandate to do difficult things, but articulating difficult choices in a manifesto has its risks, as Theresa May demonstrated with the social care proposals she set out in her 2017 manifesto. The spectacular way that that policy backfired is one reason why parties subsequently have avoided such manifesto policy announcements.  

The choices that the winning party makes about whether and where to cut public services, and whether and where to raise taxes, will dominate the first few years of the next parliament. But the two parties’ absence of clarity about how they would approach those choices risks inhibiting their ability to deliver on the ambitions set in the manifestos, whether because of a lack of public legitimacy for the actions they subsequently need to take or difficulty in passing legislative proposals through parliament.

Before the manifestos were published, the Institute for Government warned that if they did not address the huge challenges facing the next government – with struggling public services and battered public finances at the forefront – they would not be credible. While parts of both the Conservative and Labour manifestos are encouraging, their failure to set out how the parties will address those challenges means that a credibility gap runs through their pages.

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