Pledge-filled manifestos can’t solve chronic image problems

Why don’t they trust me? Jonathan Brady/PA

Both Labour and the Conservatives have now launched their 2015 manifestos – and both have used them to play to their strengths and tackle their biggest image problems head on.

Ed Milband presented his party as a force for fiscal responsibility, promising that Labour’s manifesto contained no unfunded pledges and that a Miliband-led government would eliminate the UK’s budget deficit during the next parliament. Then David Cameron tried to present the Conservatives as the party of increased NHS funding.

But the problem facing each party is the same: how credible will these attempts to change images be, coming so late in the day?

About face

Labour’s sudden and unapologetic conversion to fiscal conservatism is designed to show it can be trusted to manage the public finances – and inevitably, the credibility of its proposals is being questioned.

It would have been an easier sell if Labour had been consistently arguing for restraint over the past five years. Instead, it’s spent its years in opposition generally opposing the coalition’s cuts as a matter of course, making its commitment to fiscal rectitude just as the election approaches feel like a late conversion indeed.

Miliband’s Labour hasn’t always had a clear strategy for the deficit. His failure to mention it in his 2014 party conference speech was just one sign of a rather muddled approach to the problem; after the 2010 election, the party’s initial strategy was to talk about the necessity of cuts in general while opposing some of the most high-profile cuts introduced by the coalition, particularly when it came to welfare. Often, there seemed to be an almost instinctive opposition to cuts, particularly within the trade unions, but also within the party.

Image repair needed. PA

Labour argued that austerity was deepening the recession, and that the government should instead be promoting economic growth. The implication was that extra borrowing might be necessary to secure lift-off for the economy.

At first, there appeared to be plenty of support for this position. The coalition’s economic policies were criticised by the IMF in 2013, with its chief economist warning the UK government that if it cut spending too quickly and too deeply, it would be “playing with fire”.

But the return to growth settled this argument. In 2014, the UK was the fastest-growing G7 economy, and its performance was praised by the IMF. In response, Labour changed tack, focusing on the “cost of living crisis” facing ordinary people who don’t yet feel the recovery.

Own up

Labour’s approach was not always in step with public opinion. YouGov’s tracker polls on the cuts show voters have consistently accepted their necessity, and now believe their effect on the economy has been at least broadly positive.

Early on, more voters viewed the coalition as cutting too deep and too fast than thought positively of them. That has now reversed. The YouGov data shows that voters believe the cuts have been carried out unfairly, but even that proportion has diminished.

Who is the best party on each issue? 2010-15. YouGov, Author provided

Signing up to fiscal responsibility is intended to neutralise fears that a Labour government would spend and borrow too much money. Fairly or unfairly, the Brown era in particular is now remembered in many quarters as irresponsibly spendthrift, and Labour needed to acknowledge its mistakes. But Miliband hasn’t dealt with this image problem, never openly conceding that the last Labour government simply spent too much.

In many ways, that is understandable: the financial crisis was after all a global one, and many voters who distrust Labour might nevertheless support the idea of pumping extra money into public services. But the failure to deal with this perception allowed it to become entrenched – leaving Labour to play catch-up in the final weeks of the election campaign, with big questions of credibility still hovering over it.

Someone’s got to pay

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have similar problems. The party’s manifesto includes a number of totemic policies: an extension of the right-to-buy scheme for housing association tenants, increasing the inheritance tax threshold for family homes to £1m, and the promise of a referendum on EU membership by 2017.

But the Tory manifesto also contains pledges clearly targeted at some of its biggest image problems. Two in particular stand out: a promise to double the number of free hours of childcare for working parents of three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week, and a pledge to increase spending on the NHS by £8 billion per year.

The Conservatives have been accused of not explaining how they will pay for these and other pledges. This may be a simple gamble: since the Tories are more trusted than Labour on the economy, they may be betting that they can afford to be fairly vague on where the money will come from.

The problem for the Conservatives, as with Labour’s conversion to fiscal responsibility, is that they are trying to achieve in weeks what they have struggled to achieve in years.

Trust gap

YouGov’s latest tracker poll on policy issues shows the Tories trailing Labour by 16 percentage points on which party is best able to manage the NHS. That is a problem because the issue is highly salient: it is the third most important issue to voters, narrowly behind the economy and immigration.

Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Relative Competence on the NHS, 2010-15. YouGov, Author provided

The Conservatives’ weakness on health goes back to one of the most damaging perceptions about the party: that it represents the well-off rather than ordinary people.

YouGov’s tracker polls on party images ask respondents which party is best captured by the statement that “it seems to appeal to one section of society rather than to the whole country”. The Tories have been at or around the 50% level for the last five years, with Labour on only about 20%.

This arguably represents the partial failure of Conservative modernisation under Cameron. In particular, it is why the Tories continue to struggle in the North of England, where they could be supplanted by UKIP as Labour’s principal opposition in many constituencies.

Despite the exuberant claims at their manifesto launches, both Labour and the Conservatives will be hard pressed to neutralise their weaknesses before polling day. These are entrenched problems that will require years of work to fix. Images and reputations cannot be changed for the better overnight, although they can certainly be damaged quickly – and that is one of the main reasons why neither main party looks set to win a majority in May.

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