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Monday, January 25, 2021

UK Election: What we learnt from the party manifestos

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Week three of the election campaign in the United Kingdom (UK) was devoted to manifesto launching.  All the main political parties unveiled their manifestos for the British public to know what policies and programmes they will be implementing when in government, and the press – or hacks – strenuously scrutinizing every bits and pieces of the manifestos to make sure that the promises made are achievable, deliverable, attainable – not highfalutin promises cobbled up on the back-of-the-fag-packet.

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The first party to have a go was the Labour Party. In the early morning of 13th April, Labour party faithful descended on Manchester for the much-awaiting launch of the party election blueprint, joined by the shadow cabinet. It was all swaggers to the launching room in Manchester, as shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, and deputy leader Harriet Harman disembarked from the Labour battle bus – the bus that the party used for campaigning, and all the parties have one – to witness party leader, Ed Miliband, last major make-or-break speech.

After a brief introduction of Ed to the audience, and what Labour is fighting for in the election, Harriet Herman called her boss – oh, her protégé, it depends, but Ed served as an aide to her in the Blair government – to launch the manifesto. Labour has been spring lots of surprises since the campaign began, boxing their main rivals the Conservatives into the corner. Could they produce one in Manchester?

Yes, Ed Miliband, in his attempt to cast off his party’s poisonous legacy of being fiscally irresponsible, decided to take the Conservatives gold medal from them of fiscal prudence, by promising “budget responsibility triple lock”.  His party’s funding commitment in the budget are costed and funded, he said. To win over the skeptics, he noted that they are the only party ready to submit their budget to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), created by the Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, in the last parliament.

By casting his party as a good custodian of the public finances, Ed Miliband is tackling one his party’s greatest weaknesses. The other one is his image. They are some of the stumbling blocks putting off many supporters. And on that day, he tackled them head-on. He used to say that image-making, and presentation styles are less important in politics, compared to the issues. That is entirely true, but not in the 21st politics when both issues and the style of communicating are warped.  On the question of leadership, the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, is favourable among many voters.

In Manchester, it was not the message that was solid, but the messenger was appealing as well. Ed Miliband was calm, relaxed, measured, passionate, free-flowing and inspiring, as he laid out the core tenets of his manifesto – giving the National Health Service (NHS) the funding it needs, tackling the deficit, cutting tuition fees from 9,000 to 6,000 pounds, boosting apprenticeship for young students who gets the grades, no rise of VAT, introducing a mansion tax, cap banker’s bonuses, scrap the conservative bedroom tax, and end the epidemic surge of people on food banks, by tackling the cost-of-living crisis.

His delivery was superb, winning over large section of the media. His shadow cabinet team gave him a long standing ovation after his speech, boosting his morale as the election campaign wore on.

The bar was set higher for David Cameron to match, or exceed, when he launched his party’s manifesto the following day. But before it was their moment under the sun, the conservatives rebutted every line in the Labour manifesto with their usual line of attack of “more borrowing, spending, and debt”.

In Swindon, the Conservatives gathered on Tuesday 14th April. By now in the campaign, they should be taking a substantive lead in the polls. The economy is recovering, but it is not translating for them well in the polls. Perhaps this is as a result of the negative campaign tone that their election guru, Lynton Crosby, admonished. That in an election you win partly by pounding your opponent hard, outlining your plans. This is a view he horned in the binary world of Australian politics, where he comes from.

His focus is on these two areas: savage Ed Miliband’s character, highlighting the chaos that he will bring, compared to the Tory competence.  The other focus is the rosy side of the Conservatives long-term economic plan. So that is using both the carrot and the stick to win an election, which is far different from his predecessor, Steve Hilton, who oversaw the 2010 election campaign with George Osborne. 

It is well known in Westminster circles that David Cameron feels constrained by this strict message discipline, and being a purveyor of doom-laden warning about a future Labour government. On Tuesday, he broke ranks, by talking about something positives that will come with his government: “the good life”. The Conservative manifesto, he said, is about “security for your family, by having a secured job, hard-cash in your pocket, and affordable homes”. The collective gasped of relieve can be heard in the room, when he finally starts talking about issues that will cut through to voters.

He reminds the gathering about the 1.7million jobs created under a conservative-led government, how he rescued Britain from the brink of the precipice in 2010, and appealing to voters to stay on the economic course. He introduced eye-catching policies like extending Right to Buy in housing, free childcare for working parents with a cast-iron 30hours per week for free. He watered down his immigration target to an ambition. This time promising no ifs, no buts, to reduce it to the tens of thousands. For the main election issue, funding the NHS, he promised 8billion pounds, in line with the NHS England Chief Executive Simon Steven’s Forward View Plan on challenges the health body is facing.

Conservatives candidates were happy that David Cameron is giving something meaty to the electorate – finally. One remarked that: “we are finally seeing the compassionate Dave, who stood as a candidate for the party leadership against David Davis, and won. He is good at the sweeping soundbites and selling the package”.  This can sum up the feeling among Tories.  The manifesto, like any serious one should, contained all the three important Rs that aroused the public interest in a political party manifesto: Reassurance, Radical shift, and Retail Package. 

Reacting to the packages, Labour said that most of them were unfunded and uncosted.  The NHS 8Billion ponds funding, they claimed rightly so, that the Conservatives cannot explain where the money is coming from.  When George Osborne appeared on the BBC Andrew Marr’s Show the Sunday before to trail the announcement, he failed more than 12 times to answer where the money will come from. At best he was vague with a respond of a “balanced economy”, at worst “we will find the funding”. Their record as a party of fiscal rectitude gives them the confidence to make such promises. 

But what both main parties are not saying in the small print of their manifestos is where the 32billion ponds cuts to unprotected government departments will fall to tackle the deficit. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) pointed out that the welfare budget will be cut if any of the major party wins. That means the most vulnerable will be affected. To counter this, even though they are not forthcoming with the details, Labour insists that they will do it in a fairer way.


The minor parties prepare 

for a hung parliament

With all polls indicating a hung parliament, the minor parties – Liberal Democrats, United Kingdom Independent Party, and the Greens – prise opened their negotiating positions in the event of a hung parliament in their manifestos.  The Lib Dems, to position themselves firmly in the center ground of British politics, promised to be a “heart “to the Tories in government, and “brain” to Labour. Scanning the horizon, and sensing that the fragmented nature of British politics may flush them out, party leader Nick Clegg,  says that “ they will be stable conscience in a coalition”, not the “chaos other (like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist and the Democratic Union Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland) will bring”, naming them as “BLUKIP”. 

At his party manifesto launch in North London, where he incurs the wrath of hacks by taking one question from them (The Financial Times reporter) –   Clegg also confronted his “plucky” party decision to go into coalition with the Tories; a move many polls indicate is hugely unpopular with many of his party supporters. Rather than see the country lurch to uncertainty, he said, the Lib Dems decided “in the national interest” to join the Tories in government in 2010. 

Once in government, one of the Lib Dems core promises in the 2010 manifesto – cutting tuition fee – was not realized, as it trebled. It became a broken promise, causing a meltdown to the party’s prospect this time.  Many of his senior party members, it is predicted, are going to lose their seats, including himself in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam.  If the party fails to hold the balance of power after 7 May, Clegg could be defenestrated by the party as leader. Already, some are speculating a jockeying for power within the party, with Tim Farron, Foreign Spokesperson of the party, and Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary in the last coalition government and Deputy party leader, Vince Cable, seen as leading contenders to succeed him. 

Whatever his fate after the elections, Nick Clegg (or Nick as I affectionately refers to him) will be judged favorably by history.  He is one of my stars in British politics. His civility, passion, a capacious heart to master details, slamming his opponents in two worded terms like “flim-flam”, “ or their arguments as “argy-bargy”, “ and their plans as “hokey-conkey”, “ their coterie as “shelved-eyed brigades” , “ and their policy positions as” loopy-ideologue”, inter alia marked him out. I will, like all avid followers of British politics, miss his Thursday morning Live-Phone-In dubbed “Call-Clegg” on Leading British Conversation Radio (LBC) with his estimable host Nick Ferrari.  I am hoping Nick will be back in the House of Commons, as he himself said, reacting to a poll that saw him trailing behind in his constituency: “ I am confident, but not complacent of wining my seat”. 


Nigel Farage portrays UKIP 

as a serious party this time

In their last manifesto, UKIP came up with eccentric and absurd promises and programmes. One of them was to have all taxi drivers in the UK to wear the same uniforms. The manifesto was full of the negative and less of the positives. Unable to defend the manifesto, when Westminster journalist starts unpicking every line of the manifesto, exposing its out-of-touch-nature, Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, disowned it, describing the manifesto as “nonsense” and “drivel”.  On 15 April, Nigel Farage, with his party Deputy Suzane Evans in tow sought to portray UKIP as a serious party this time, by launching “fully costed manifesto verified by an independent thainktank”. 

UKIP are the only party promising to invest the 2 percent GDP on Defense, which is a NATO requirement. But other areas of the manifesto were aimed at their core voters, like controlling immigration by bring an Australian-styled point System, cutting Britain’s 0.7percent GDP on international aid, creating a War Veteran Minister portfolio to look after war veterans, and of course, withdrawing Britain from the EU and protecting the NHS. 

Their manifesto launch was notable for two things. First, and more importantly, the absence of the party’s  two parliamentary candidates – Mark Reckless and Douglass Carswell – both of who defected from the Tories to UKIP in the latter part of the last parliament, stood for by-elections and won their seats of Rochester and Strode, and Clacton respectively. It is believed that serious rift is emerging between Farage and them, especially after his distasteful HIV comments in the seven-way leader’s debate two weeks ago, when Farage said many HIV positive seeking treatment at the NHS are foreigners. Secondly and less important, the party showed that it won’t brook no nonsense from hacks, when they heckled one who draws Farage attention in a question to him that the party leaflet is having only one black face.  

 On his alleged frosty relationship with his parliamentary candidates, given that Farage, according to a poll suppressed by his team sponsored by his chief business donor Aaron Banks, is one point behind his Tory rival in the Kent seat of South Thannet, where he is standing as an MP, if he lost this election he admitted he is going to resign as the party leader. And Mark and Douglas, heavily tipped to retain their seats, are going to be his party’s voice in Westminster. So patching up their differences will help the party a great deal.      


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