This year’s general election in the UK is a crapshoot. The outdated voting system — combined with the rise of UKIP and the SNP, the curveball of the Greens, and general anger at the coalition — makes the result impossible to predict. Plenty of people call themselves undecided voters, but just as many fall back to habit, voting for parties they assume speak for them. I’d largely made up my mind how to vote, but decided to read the manifestos of all of the main parties with candidates in Great Britain (as in, England, Scotland and Wales). The results were insightful and frequently surprising.
In a general sense, I found it very clear how much of people’s perception of politics is warped by the media, but also how the actions of a small set of politicians doesn’t necessarily correlate with what a party claims to stand for. Arguments about how all parties are the same are impossible to support on actually reading their policies; while there’s no doubt the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are often seen fighting for a certain kind of middle-England voter, I wonder how much of that is down to the broken electoral system rather than what they actually believe in. Certainly, the manifestos showcase three very different parties — although not necessarily standing where you might expect.
What follows is my reaction to the manifestos for each party, in the order that I read them in.
UKIP‘s manifesto, to my surprise, wasn’t a kind of rambling embarrassment. The party wants to be seen as a properly mature political force, and the manifesto is evidence of that. My personal politics are at odds with much of what the party’s suggesting, but the document is some way from the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ label the media frequently paints the party with. That said, the party does retain some oddball thinking at times, such as banging on about British seaside holidays and funnelling money into saving such towns, and its overall stance on policy was, to my mind, coming from a fairly extreme Conservative viewpoint.
The SNP manifesto was broadly impressive, human, and positive. Whether the economic figures within are accurate, I couldn’t say, but there was a refreshing openness and humanity throughout, not least in displaying a candid position on potential post-election support. The party’s policies on the whole now appear to veer towards socialism, with a progressive bent that I’m sure plenty of people outside of Scotland would vote for. It’s easy to see why the party is on course to take a huge number of Scottish seats. Purely on the basis of the manifesto, ‘the SNP will destroy the UK’ alarmism seems misplaced. Like Plaid Cymru, the SNP’s long-standing aim is to usher in an independent country, but the manifesto goes to great lengths to say the party wants to be a positive influence on all of the UK.
The Conservative manifesto was in some ways a tougher read than the UKIP one, and it had strange ideas of its own, such as dredging up the A303 tunnel near Stonehenge as policy. It referred heavily to Labour and the mess the party left so often that it may as well have just added ‘REMEMBER: LABOUR IS EVIL’ as a footnote on every page. But I was nonetheless surprised with how caustic the manifesto was. In practically the same breath it talks about eliminating child poverty, it then says the party would lower the benefit cap by three grand. It talks about the BBC World Service being vital, yet elsewhere argues for the licence fee to be frozen. Education policy also seems positively Victorian, demanding core subjects include history or geography, but ignoring IT, creativity and social studies entirely. Elsewhere, there was a lot about rewarding people for work, but the policies on tax and benefits are more about rewarding the rich. If anything, I disliked this manifesto more than the UKIP one, and noted on Twitter that the Conservatives truly are the Selfish Bastards Party as we head into this election.
With Plaid Cymru, I was expecting the Welsh version of the SNP, but for some reason the spark just wasn’t there. I’m not sure why. Somehow, the Plaid Cymru manifesto seemed a little lacking in ambition, and it probably didn’t help later on when some of its big-hitter policies on devolution and train nationalisation are very similar to those in the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos. Still, the party’s broadly progressive aims were evident.
The big surprise for me was the mammoth Liberal Democrat manifesto, a 158-page document that looks like it’s been spat out from Microsoft Word. It’s a baffling read in many ways, not least because it’s for the most part really good. Policy-wise, it reads like a mix of new and old Labour, with largely socialist and well-meaning policies that I was hoping for (but often didn’t find) in Labour’s manifesto. It was the only manifesto that seemed truly savvy about the potential in digital and technology, and the UK’s role in that. However, it did also make me wonder why we don’t actually see this version of the Liberal Democrats anywhere. If the party in government was this party, it’d be polling in the 20s at least, not single figures. Maybe it is this party, but the media has hammered it; but the Liberal Democrat voting record suggests otherwise. Perhaps had we got a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, things could have been very different.
The Labour manifesto was perhaps the weirdest one. The others generally outline their policy in specific areas, but Labour’s lumps policies together under rather broader umbrellas like “Helping our families and communities to thrive” and “Providing world-class health and education services”. I imagine this was designed to make the manifesto more approachable, but it just comes across as a bit messy. And the same could be said for the policies in general. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s extremely strong on health, but it too often feels here like it’s hedging its bets — faffing about rail nationalisation, trying to convince people who might vote Conservative about Labour’s tough stance on immigration, and so on. Read the Labour and Conservative manifestos back to back and they are very clearly different beasts, but I too often felt Labour’s veered into being ‘Conservative Lite’ (while the Conservative one goes ‘Full Tory’ right from the get-go). Labour needs to be bold, whereas its manifesto practically admits it’s being unambitious. (Still, that beats caustic.)
Finally, the Green Party manifesto is a weighty tome in terms of word-count, and by far the most radical. The Greens aren’t so much ‘merely’ progressive as demanding an ambitious overhaul of society, from top to bottom. There are things within I took issue with (not least the party’s energy policy), but the majority of the ideas the party has are interesting and the arguments are mostly sound — and a long way from the ‘mad vegan’ label they get. Much like UKIP, the Greens have been branded as a kind of dangerous and extremist party; with UKIP, I just see the establishment in a different hue, but with the Greens, I see a threat to establishment thinking and dominance, which is presumably why newspapers and rival parties alike argue they are to be crushed.
Update. Here are the links to the manifestos: Conservative; Green Party; Labour; Liberal Democrat; Plaid Cymru; SNP; UKIP.