"Go back to your constituencies and prepare for… another Coalition?"
Polls suggest that we could be looking at a further political tie-up after the General Election – so how are party leaders trying to shape policies that will give them an edge with voters?
With a Coalition government in power and the polls suggesting a similar arrangement after May’s General Election, what faith should we place in party manifestos as campaigning hots up?
The simple promise of a two horse race – “if we win, we’ll deliver on our manifesto promises” – is complicated by the trade-offs and compromises that inevitably shape a Coalition agreement. Suddenly, a coveted policy might be off the table.
While smaller parties can focus on totemic issues (e.g., UKIP and immigration) and specific parts of the electorate (e.g., the Greens’ traditional rapport with passionate environmentalists), the major parties need to build support among a wide range of interest groups if they hope to win a mandate to rule alone. That means that at least some of the compromises happen before any post-election discussions – but it can also lead to commitments that are made up of gifts for each faction, rather than a consistent package for the country.
Two examples of this have been reported this week.
David Cameron is set to campaign on a continuation of universal benefits for pensioners – one of his key demographic constituencies. While the benefit cap is set to reduce from £26,000 to £23,000 for out-of-work families if the Conservatives are elected in May, wealthy pensioners will continue to receive winter fuel payments, free bus passes and TV licenses. Arguments can be made for retaining those benefits, but they still sit uncomfortably with a message that everyone is working together to repair the public finances. Setting aside the ideology, the political calculation is simple: three-quarters of the over 60s vote, compared to less than half of those aged between 18 and 24. Democratic participation is even lower among those in that younger age group, who face benefit cuts and housing benefit abolition. Older people, meanwhile, wield significant democratic power.
From the other side of the house, it seems Labour intends to make a manifesto pledge to cut tuition fees from £9000 to £6000. There are some strong political reasons to do so. Part of Ed Miliband’s strategy is to win the support of disaffected Lib Dem voters – so why not make a big symbolic gesture to rectify Nick Clegg’s great betrayal of students? Estimates suggest that mobilising the student vote could help Labour win around eight seats. There is a clear risk, though: that this (relatively marginal) political gain could come at the cost of effective policymaking. First, lowering tuition fees to £6000 is unlikely to have the desired effect of helping the most disadvantaged. Under the current system, loan repayments are contingent on graduate incomes and written off if unpaid within 30 years. Current estimates indicate that around 45% of student loans will never be repaid, with the implication that low-earning graduates will never pay anything like the £9000 sticker price. Reducing that sticker price by £3000 is therefore likely to benefit only higher-earning graduates, who would otherwise repay the full amount. Not what you’d call a particularly redistributive way of tackling inequality.
There are also implications for university budgets. Despite the long-term problems of the 45% non-repayment rate (which incidentally, is something Labour would be better served addressing if they want to improve the student-finance system), the current framework gives universities an immediate revenue stream of £9000 per student. Cutting the per-student income level would hit university budgets hard, and have a detrimental impact on the facilities needed for a good student experience. Labour’s continued failure to find an adequate means of compensating for this sits behind the delay in formally announcing the pledge. You have to ask: if it is so difficult to shape a policy that will work in practice, should that policy not be abandoned altogether?
The big question is, does a consistent policy programme matter, or will the electorate simply look at the bits that affect their personal circumstances or key concerns? If it’s the latter, then the major parties are playing a similar game to the smaller parties. They’re still focusing on niche issues but putting them on the table as a self-selecting buffet, rather than a balanced, three-course meal.
Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.