To kick things off with our discussion on policy planning and developments in the UK and internationally, former UK civil servant from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and Ministry of Justice, Andrew Archer, takes a look at the upcoming UK Parliamentary elections, compares the party manifestos, and explains the role of the civil service in turning the promises they contain into policy and legislation.
Andrew is a regular contributor on a number of ICPS professional certificate courses, including the Professional Certificate in Strategic Policy Planning and the Professional Certificate in Management and Leadership.
An important part of any UK election is the release of the party manifestos. All the UK political parties will have expected there to be plenty of time to prepare their manifestos as, in line with the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011, the next election was not due to take place until 2020. Indeed, until she announced that she would be seeking a parliamentary vote to secure the two thirds majority required to enable an election, Theresa May had been pretty clear that there wouldn’t be an election before 2020 and most of her own party will have been as surprised as everyone else.
So, cue a lot of very intense work by all the political parties to get their manifestos drafted and agreed. Political parties do not have huge numbers of people working on policy development (although there will be full time think tanks separate from the parties they can draw on) and in putting together a manifesto there will usually be processes involving discussion and agreement with the membership and all sorts of party committees. The release of several manifestos this time round was also affected by the Manchester bombing and the suspension of political activity in the immediate aftermath of that.
Whether many of the electorate actually get hold of copies of the party manifestos and read them is doubtful. For the majority, it is what gets picked up in the media that provides most of the information on what the different parties are offering. For an increasing number that will be social media – as was the case in the US with Donald Trump – rather than the traditional media.
One group of people who will certainly be looking closely at the detail of the manifestos are the civil servants charged with doing ‘election contingency planning’ and who will have to translate the manifesto commitments into policies that can be delivered. They will be looking at each of the party’s manifestos and trying to work out what they mean for particular policy areas. How do they align with current strategy and policies? What new legislation might be needed? What do they suggest in terms of focus, budget and other resources, including delivery chains? What would need to happen in the early days of the new administration to get things moving? It is a bit of a guessing game, but it is an essential part of making sure that things begin as smoothly as possible for whichever party wins the election.
As the current governing party much of what is in the Conservative manifesto content will have been looked at prior to the election and many of the spending assumptions in the Conservative manifesto have already have been set out in current spending plans. Other manifestos, and that of the Labour Party in particular are quite different and would represent significant shifts in direction.
The stated rationale for calling the 2017 election, three years ahead of schedule, was to help the government secure a healthy majority, which in turn would strengthen its hand in the Brexit negotiations.
The Conservative manifesto says an unambiguous no to continued membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union. It promises to control immigration from Europe, secure the rights of UK citizens in Europe and EU citizens in the UK and to build a ‘deep and special’ relationship with Europe. However, they say they will walk away from the Brexit negotiations with no deal in preference to accepting a bad deal for the UK.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) sees no need for the Brexit negotiations under the Article 50 process and says that the UK should just repeal the European Communities Act (1972) and leave the EU unilaterally, making 23rd June (the day of the historic vote) an ‘Independence Day’ Bank Holiday.
The Liberal Democrats and the Greens want a second referendum before accepting the final Brexit deal, with the option of staying in the EU. The Scottish Nationalists also want such a referendum and insist Scotland should remain in the Single Market regardless of what else happens under Brexit.
Labour would replace the Government’s Brexit white paper with a new set of negotiating priorities, including emphasis on remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union, and rejects the idea of walking away from the EU without a deal.
Concern about the levels of net immigration was a key issue in the debate around Brexit and remains a sensitive and controversial issue, so manifesto pledges on this topic have also been centre stage. The Conservatives say they will reduce net immigration to ‘tens of thousands, but say little on how that would be achieved. They also reject the suggestion that overseas students should be excluded from immigration statistics. Critics question how realistic their target is when it has now been in place for seven years without any significant shift towards achieving it. Labour refuses to set what it calls ‘bogus immigration targets’ and would exclude students from immigration statistics (which would in turn massively reduce the figures). It would however, introduce a new immigration system and the manifesto keeps options open on which policy tools might be employed, including changes to visa regulations, work permits and employer sponsorship.
The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party look to provide a more positive narrative on immigration and a greater commitment, like Labour, to taking more refugees and asylum seekers. While UKIP’s manifesto commits to honour obligations to ‘bona fide asylum seekers’ they would reduce net migration to zero over a five year period.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies has criticised the Conservative’s immigration policy, saying it would “cause considerable economic damage” and cost the government £6 billion a year in lost revenues. The same body was also critical of Labour party costings and suggested there was a £9 billion black hole in the costings of their manifesto pledges.
Controlling the narrative
Each of the parties will have started off with a communication plan to give their core messages maximum traction with the electorate but, as in most elections issues and challenges can catch the parties out and events outside their control can emerge. The tragic Manchester bombing was something that no political party could have foreseen, but soon drew discussion onto issues like spend on security, the number of police, foreign policy and the resourcing of the National Health Service.
The Conservatives also found themselves on the defensive when their manifesto plans to reform the way care costs for the elderly are funded, with new charges for care in the home and the withdrawal of the currently universal ‘winter fuel allowance’ payment to elderly people for all but the most in need. Uncertainty about what the new measures would cost people provoked a very negative reaction and led to an ‘about face’ on a key component of the manifesto proposal with the re-introduction of a cap on what people could be charged for care. As often happens with unpopular taxes, a catchphrase emerged which encapsulated public perceptions of the proposal. Initially referred to as a ‘death tax’, it was soon being referred to, across traditional media and social media, as the ‘dementia tax’. So, while the manifesto proposal was about the totality of care for the elderly, it was care for people with one particular condition that acted as the focus for the negative reaction.
Meanwhile Labour had their problems too with several of their policy launches caught up in controversy, when key figures appeared to be unsure (or badly prepared), when confronted by questions on how much policies would cost and where that money would come from. That matters when the figures are tens of billions of pounds, as in the case of the National Health Service (NHS). All the parties say they are going to give more to the NHS. The Greens don’t specify an amounts but the Conservatives talk about an extra £5 billion over 5 years, Labour of an extra £30 billion over the same period and the Liberal Democrats go for £6 billion per year on the NHS and social care, paid for by ring-fenced income from a 1p increase on income tax. UKIP meanwhile said they would increase spending in some areas and reverse previous cuts in expenditure to social care.
With the lead of the incumbent Conservative party narrowing in some opinion polls and people talking about a result giving no overall lead to one party, speculation grows about the possibility of a minority government or even formal or informal coalition. That might suggest a re-check of the manifestos of the smaller parties if their support is going to be needed by a larger party.
Assuming there is a clear result, then from June 9th the real work will begin on turning manifesto promises into policies. If it is a Conservative government that will include working out how to address care costs for the elderly in a way that is equitable across the country and the population as a whole and how to make control of immigration work. In the case of Labour, it will be how to deliver against the very large and expensive promises they have made.
Something else that sometimes happens following elections is the creation of new departments or merged departments. Another ball for officials to juggle.
And of course, while the election has been going on, many policy officials will have been involved in the preparations for the Brexit negotiations, which are due to start less than two weeks after the election result is known – and Brexit was the reason we were told we needed the election in the first place. Lots of briefing, position papers and working out how to schedule everything into the Parliamentary timetable.
If you are interested in learning more about public policy and effective policy creation, our next Professional Certificate in Strategic Policy Planning will take place in London, 10 – 14 July. To find out more on this programme and to view the full agenda, please visit the course page here: http://www.strategicpolicy.parlicentre.org/.