Just three days to go now until we enter the polling booths to register our choice. There’s no doubting the scale of that choice. The three main parties have manifestos that are more different from each other on economic policy, on taxes and on spending than they have been since at least 1983.
Not only is the scale of the choice clear, at first glance it might appear that the consequences of different outcomes are clear as well. Each party has published detailed costings of a range of spending policies. Among much else, we know, for instance, that Labour wants to spend £1.4 billion more on free prescriptions, dental care and hospital parking. The Conservatives have assigned (a remarkably precise) £879 million for additional nurse recruitment. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have put forward equally precise plans to spend £13.99 billion more on early years and childcare.
Each party has put a total cost by its plans. Add them up on a comparable basis and the manifestos promise, respectively, £83 billion (plus £58 billion over five years, if you include the additional giveaway to the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) group announced a couple of days after Labour’s manifesto launch), £3 billion and £37 billion of additional non-investment spending in 2023-24 over and above presently planned expenditure.
They’ve not only laid out their spending plans, they’ve set out details of how they’ll pay. Once again ignoring the promise to hand an enormous sum to women born in the 1950s, Labour’s £82.9 billion of spending promises are precisely matched by £82.9 billion of tax rises. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also have tax-raising plans that, according to their own documents, would raise almost precisely as much as their non-investment spending plans would cost. Unsurprisingly, they each have boasted that their manifestos are detailed and fully costed and by implication are trustworthy and a clear blueprint for delivery.
I wonder, though. I wonder about the details. I wonder about the big picture. I even wonder about whether focusing on these sorts of numbers is helpful.
On the detail, there’s lots here to ring alarm bells. Do the Liberal Democrats really know they would get £1.49 billion a year from legalising and taxing cannabis and £5.7 billion from reducing tax avoidance? Does Labour know that it would get £4.3 billion from “an efficiency review of corporate tax reliefs” and £8.8 billion from a financial transactions tax of a kind never tried anywhere else?
The big picture also rings alarm bells. After their 2015 and 2017 election victories, the Conservatives spent a lot more than promised in their manifestos — in many ways, an odd electoral strategy to under-promise and over-deliver on spending, whilst over-promising and under-delivering on deficit reduction. If I had to guess, I’d bet that if they were to win a majority on Thursday, then something similar would happen this time. There is so little in the manifesto, it seems utterly inconceivable that what’s there is a real blueprint for a five-year term. Whatever you might think of the detail, the big picture doesn’t add up.
The same is true in reverse for Labour. Don’t forget that on top of the £83 billion of additional current expenditure it is promising, it wants to renegotiate Brexit, literally double government investment spending, fundamentally reform the tax system, radically overhaul the labour market and nationalise a swathe of British industry. Whatever the merits of each policy, each one is a huge and complex task. There is no way all are achievable in a single parliament, so if the party were to win, its actual tax and spending programme surely would be quite different to that carefully laid out in its manifesto.
If the Conservative Party were to win, it surely would do more than it promises, we just don’t know what. If Labour were to win, it would be forced to prioritise, we just don’t know how.
Let me be clear. In neither case am I saying that the broad vision and sense of direction of the main parties are necessarily unachievable. We do have a real choice between a country with much higher levels of tax and spending than today, or one where the role of the state is much more constrained. What we won’t have is anything that looks very close to the specific outcomes envisaged in the manifestos.
Which is fine up to a point, but only up to a point. It would be genuinely nice to know how the Conservatives would deal with the inevitable pressures to spend more in some areas. Which taxes would they raise? Or would they allow borrowing to rise? Or would they really impose further cuts on some budgets after a decade of austerity?
The supposed detail also can get in the way of the big picture. Labour makes two specific claims about its tax plans. One is that they would raise £83 billion a year. The other is that only the top 5 per cent would pay. The first is unlikely, at best, the second demonstrably untrue. Yet the general point, the big picture aspiration, is credible. It could reform the taxation of capital, increase corporation tax and increase taxes on high earners in a way which would raise a considerable sum of money and help to reduce inequality. The implausibility of the specific claims and costings gets in the way of the more plausible general ambition.
More importantly, governing means dealing with uncertainty, with crises, with a changing world. How the different parties would respond to the inevitable surprises matters and can never be captured in numbers. Voters will make their choices based on overall impressions. They should not expect the apparent precision of the manifestos to translate into actual precise policy.
This article orginally appeared in The Times and is used here with kind permission.