Expert Blog

The manifesto overlaps are more important than the manifesto promises

Everything used to be so simple. The political parties would release their manifestos at the beginning of an election campaign; we’d elect one of them into Downing Street; and then we could judge them on whether they managed to keep their promises.

No longer. Nowadays, in this era of close polls and hung parliaments, almost everything is different. The parties still publish their manifestos, of course. But rather than being a definitive document of what they will – or will try – to do within government, those manifestos are more an opening gambit, a starter for ten, a toe in the water, an… oh, you get the point. 

What matters now is how the various manifestos overlap with each other. Who agrees with whom, and who would help whom, in the event of another coalition or a minority government? What policies could be retained, and which would be binned? These were the unspoken questions behind our recent summaries – here and here – of the parties’ transport pledges. Now let’s have a go at answering them.

The best place to start is where all the parties seem to start their transport policy: HS2. If this high-speed railway line from London to the Midlands and beyond continues to completion, it will be one of the grandest and most expensive engineering projects of our time. But will it continue to completion? All of the main parties certainly want it to, by which I mean the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the booming Scottish National Party. The parties that want it scrapped are UKIP and the Greens.

Here we get into the tricky matter of what trade-offs might take place in a hung parliament. In truth, we cannot know what each party would give and take in the negotiations that would follow an inconclusive election. That will depend on how desperate they are. But we can be pretty sure that neither UKIP nor the Greens will have enough seats to make their opposition to HS2 count. It’s unlikely that any of the other parties will stop this multi-£billion enterprise to get a couple more MPs on their side.

Besides, there are other areas of agreement when it comes to high-speed rail. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems want to create new routes between cities in the north of England – which is no surprise, as they devised that policy when in coalition with each other. And both the Lib Dems and the SNP would like to see HS2 extended to Scotland. These are parties that would likely have some weight in a hung parliament. Their aims could well be met.

A greater degree of uncertainty hangs over the other grand engineering project of our time. We said when it was first announced that George Osborne’s £15 billion plan for renovating Britain’s roads could run aground – and the manifestos don’t exactly calm that fear. The Conservatives and Lib Dems support it wholeheartedly, of course. But Labour are more reticent. Their manifesto says little more than ‘We will support long-term investment in strategic roads.’ But how much investment? And in which strategic roads?

Part of the problem is that Osborne’s scheme is new: unlike HS2, the work has barely begun, so it can be easily rescinded by another government. But even if it’s not rescinded, it could be changed beyond recognition by the demands of the other parties. The SNP wants roads in this part of Scotland. Plaid Cymru wants roads in this part of Wales. The Greens, well, they don’t really want new roads, so we’ll leave them out of it. The point is that everyone has their own set of priorities. They might have to be mixed together if roads renovation is to happen at all.

This mix – a little bit of one thing, a little bit of another – could actually be where transport policy is heading anyway, even without the help of a hung parliament. All of the main parties’ manifestos talk about devolving responsibility for transport away from Westminster, whether to regions, local authorities or other public sector bodies. And, as we’ve said before, that should mean a greater variance of policy. Some places may choose roads; others may go with cycle paths. Some may want new railway lines; others may protest against them. This is what happens when one size no longer fits all.

Or does it? There’s still an awful lot to be determined by any post-election negotiations in Westminster. Could Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens find common ground over emissions targets? Yes. Could Labour, the SNP and the Greens do similar over railway nationalisation? Probably. And what about UKIP and the Greens sharing a HGV ride into the sunset? Erm, no way.

Such is the complex latticework of the forthcoming election. Our votes will still count, as they always do, but the agreements and disagreements between our politicians could count almost as much. Depressing? Perhaps. But it needn’t mean that nothing gets done. Just look at some of the measures I’ve highlighted above: HS2, roads renovation, devolution. Any one of these, by itself, is a big transport policy. Yet more them one of them could survive Thursday 7 May.

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