UKIP manifesto a bid for credibility after disappointing campaign kick off

All smiles in Thurrock. Gareth Fuller/PA

With just a few weeks to go, Nigel Farage will be hoping that the launch of the UKIP manifesto will turbo-charge his party’s 2015 election campaign, which has so far failed to take off in the way that he would have hoped.

Last autumn UKIP was riding high, capping an extraordinary year in which it won the European elections by capturing its first two Westminster seats.

At that point support for UKIP was at around 18% in opinion polls, but since then it has eased back. The BBC’s poll tracker suggests that the party is currently on 14% of the vote and has been flat-lining at this level throughout the campaign so far.

As the Conservatives struggled to find a way back to power following Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997, they were often accused of falling back on core strategy resting on the “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, immigration and taxation. Fearing this contributed to a nasty party image, Cameron’s modernisation agenda was meant to move the party away from this approach.

UKIP has no such qualms, with a suite of policies in relation to each element of the Tebbit trinity that would make many a Conservative blush.

Out of Europe

On Europe, no one can be surprised to find that the manifesto retains exit from the European Union as the overriding objective. At the launch event in Thurrock, Nigel Farage repeated that a “fair” referendum was the number one price for UKIP lending the votes of its MPs to the support of a governing party. The manifesto also claims that withdrawal from the EU would save the country £9bn a year by 2019-20, a vital element in its fiscal plan.

Tough on immigration

Immigration consistently polls as one of the top three issues facing the country, and is one on which UKIP polls strongly.

Among UKIP supporters, immigration is seen as by far the most important issue facing the country, way ahead of both Europe and the economy.

In recent weeks there has been some confusion over whether UKIP favours a specific cap on migrant numbers. The manifesto clarifies this, stating that highly-skilled work visas would be limited to 50,000 a year, “including those from the EU”.

This restricted number of visas will be allocated through an Australian-style points based system, the party claims. There will also be a complete moratorium on unskilled migration until 2020. These commitments are in line with previous pronouncements the party has made on immigration and appeal directly to the supporters UKIP has won over the past five years. Linked as they are to regaining “control of our borders” by withdrawing from the EU, they are also pledges that none of the other parties can seek to match.

Generous on tax

The scale of the promises UKIP has made on the third element of the Tebbit trinity – taxation – are perhaps the most surprising. The manifesto promises to take minimum wage earners out of tax altogether – a pledge also made by David Cameron at the Conservative manifesto launch. UKIP would raise the personal tax allowance to £13,000 per annum – just trumping the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who are offering £12,500.

UKIP also sought to outbid the Conservatives on the 40p higher rate of tax: whereas the Conservatives have claimed they will raise the threshold to £50,000, UKIP have suggested £55,000. In addition, UKIP promise a new mid-rate of 30 pence between £43,500 and £55,000. The transferable tax allowance for married couples would be raised to £1500, and inheritance tax scrapped altogether. Business rates would also be reduced.

A furrowed Farage. Gareth Fuller/PA

Given that the average income of UKIP voters is lower than that of supporters of the other main parties, and that households with incomes of £30,000 a year or more are amongst those least likely to vote UKIP, the emphasis on tax cuts for middle and higher earners seems like an odd strategy. But the promises do reflect the party’s right-wing ideological heritage and commitment to free market economics.

The longer-term aspiration of a UKIP government would be to restore the personal tax-free allowance to those earning over £100,000 and make 40% the top rate of tax for all. This is something that might win UKIP support from Conservative MPs, but is unlikely to resonate on the doorstep in UKIP target seats.

In addition to this £18bn a year tax giveaway, UKIP has promised £1.2bn a year extra for social care by 2020, a new military hospital, and 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, and 3,000 more midwives. The bedroom tax would be scrapped and the carers’ allowance increased. Cuts to welfare would come in the form of a lower (unspecified) benefits cap, a five-year ban on benefits for migrants, and by restricting child benefit to two children for new claimants. Defence spending would also be boosted to the NATO requirement of 2% of GDP – another pledge many Conservatives wish their party had made.

Will it work?

To pay for all this UKIP claims that it will cut £11bn from overseas aid by 2019-2020, save £9bn by withdrawing from the EU, save £4bn by scrapping HS2, and save a whopping £5.5bn by replacing the Barnett formula with a “needs based” allocation of spending between the nations of the UK. This latter pledge would effectively mean a big cut in the funds allocated to Scotland.

In a bid for plausibility, the party has had its numbers audited by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Most voters are of course unlikely to be poring over the details of the manifestos, and are even less likely to be downloading the report of the independent auditors. But in pitching for fiscal credibility the party is hoping to reach beyond the status of being a protest vote and be taken seriously in mainstream debate.

There is probably enough in this manifesto to hold onto a good chunk of the converts the party has won over since 2010, meaning that at least a trebling of the 3% vote share the party achieved in 2010 is more than likely. Where exactly it takes those votes could be crucial to the eventual outcome on May 7.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.

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