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Manifestly unconvincing

The Conservatives have unveiled a “Jeremy Corbyn style” manifesto, according to the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.  That’s a sentence that sums up the unusual state of British politics, just three weeks out from polling day.

Starmer didn’t make the comparison as a compliment, despite having campaigned for his predecessor’s agenda just a few short years ago. Instead, he knows all too well that the public considered Corbyn’s pledges unbelievable, in the literal sense, and he’s keen to paint the latest Tory promises with the same brush.

Rishi Sunak maintains that yesterday’s commitments on future tax cuts are fully costed and eminently achievable, but it isn’t just a question of credibility. When a party that’s been in power for 14 years unveils a catalogue of great new ideas, the public is entitled to question why they haven’t done any of them already. Immigration controls? The figures are at a record high. Tax cuts? The burden is at a record high. House building? NHS reform? Higher defence spending? The same natural reaction greets all such pledges; you’ve had your chance.

For the Conservatives, there’s another problem in the mix. The measures contained in the manifesto are individually popular but there’s no evidence of them resuscitating the party’s dire poll rating. Why? Because the party is unpopular, as is its leader. This is where Starmer’s Corbyn comparison makes sense. His predecessor’s policies were popular. Remember the promise of free broadband for everyone? But when taken together and considered alongside the man making the promises and the party poised to deliver them, the voters recoiled.

Manifestos can be funny things. Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” – while in 2010 the Conservatives launched “an invitation to join the government of Great Britain” – but the RSVPs were sufficiently lukewarm to result in a hung parliament and a coalition government. Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto for the Conservatives was too clever by half, or too honest, and derailed her campaign once voters got spooked by the reality of her social care plan. As for the Boris Johnson manifesto of 2019, it was blown up by Covid then dumped by his successors in No 10.

So why bother with them at all? Do they change minds? Do parties regret being held to account? Why do they campaign in poetry if they know they’ll have to govern in prose?

The truth is that these set-piece campaign moments do at least allow parties to command attention for a day (one senior Tory campaign source tells us that they need the manifesto to help “move on” from Rishi Sunak’s disastrous D-Day debacle) and we should concede that it’s probably sensible for politicians to set out in detail what they’d do in office.

Labour will reveal their manifesto tomorrow, building on the various “missions” and “steps” they’ve already announced. The document is unlikely to contain many fireworks and will probably be more about offering detail on the pledges they’ve already made. Labour’s approach to the election has been described as a Ming vase strategy; tread carefully, don’t break it. One party insider tells us that “people are taking ‘change’ as the instruction and inspiration” adding that “the ‘don’t knows’ are breaking for Labour.” In this context, they don’t want a manifesto that spooks the very voters they’re trying to lure with promises of competence and stability.

In truth, what’s left out of the Labour manifesto will be just as interesting as what makes it in. There is a growing expectation that a Starmer government would set about raising a variety of taxes – including Capital Gains Tax – once in office, and that isn’t a policy you’d expect to see written down.

It would be too cynical to describe party manifestos as merely decorative, but it would be a stretch to consider them a binding contract.

If you’d like to speak to Hawthorn about our Political Advisory offering, please email Mark Burr at

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