Do party manifestos matter?

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With the election a few short weeks away, the political parties have laid out their plans in their party manifestos. What do these pledges mean for community business?
19 Jun, 2024
Nick Plumb

Nick Plumb

Associate Director for Policy and Insight

Manifestos matter. And yet, they don’t. They matter, at their best, because they tell us something about the governing ideology of the party in relation to the state of the nation. They tell us about the electoral coalition the party is trying to speak to. The Conservatives’ 2019 Manifesto was a great example of this – put ‘levelling up’ front and centre to win over voters in the already-crumbling ‘red wall’. It also signalled that this iteration of Conservative government would be willing to use the state more significantly than its predecessors.  

Despite all this, we also saw how little the Conservative 2019 manifesto mattered, in the long-run. Largely, because of events outside of their control. The government didn’t win a mandate for national lockdowns or huge aid provision to Ukraine. But, on balance, there was support for such action. The art of government is having a guiding North Star which can help you navigate choppy waters. I’d also argue that the art of good government, particularly in the complex world we now inhabit, is being humble that you cannot navigate these choppy waters alone. But more on that later.  

The extent to which manifestos matter also depends on the likelihood of the party forming the government. We saw this in 2019, when Labour, trailing heavily in the polls, sought to pull ‘rabbits’ out the hat to try to shift the dial. But by this point, the electorate had made up their minds and this looked like an act of desperation, which turned the electorate off further.  

Currently, the polls are pointing to a historic victory for Labour, and a potentially historic collapse for the Conservatives. The 2024 Conservative campaign seems to be in a similar state to Labour in 2019. Their National Service policy achieved the job it set out to do and garnered headlines. But does the policy make sense in the context of the Conservatives’ wider manifesto? 

What the manifestos mean for community business 

There are concrete commitments in many of the major party manifestos that would benefit community businesses – from the extension of the Community Ownership Fund, committed to by the Conservative Party, to the promise of new powers over community assets in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The Green Party said they will introduce “regional mutual banks to drive investment in decarbonisation and local economic sustainability by supporting investment in SMEs and community-owned enterprises and cooperatives”. There is noticeably little in the Reform manifesto for community business.  

Then, there’s the Labour Party. Likely to be the party of government when the polls close in just over two weeks’ time, Labour’s manifesto didn’t unveil many surprises. No rabbits to see here. Much of the policy that made it into the manifesto has been trailed for months. A Local Power Plan will provide up to £600m for local authorities and £400m for community energy organisations annually. Done right, this could be a massive boost for community businesses – leading to the formation of new community energy businesses and helping existing community businesses diversify into local energy generation. There is also a commitment from the party to ‘support diverse business models’ and an “aim to double the size of the UK’s co-operative and mutuals sector”. Again, how they choose to go about this, is a big question. What does doubling-the-size mean in practice? Is it growth of existing co-operatives, or the formation of new businesses?  

Looking beyond the headlines 

For some time, Labour have spoken about new devolution legislation. It was noticeable, however, that when referencing this in the manifesto there was no timeframe attached to their mooted Take Back Control Act. This is in contrast to their New Deal for Working People, on which legislation will be introduced in the first 100 days of a Labour government, should they win the election. A Community Right to Buy is one of the ways that Labour can deliver on this commitment to “transfer power out of Westminster, and into our communities”. The Labour Party has since publicly made reference to this new power, despite it not being mentioned explicitly in the manifesto. Which brings us back to the question of whether manifestos matter. They are not an extensive list of every single piece of policy, but they give us a sense of a direction of travel.  

The Liberal Democrats are also polling strongly and could gain a significant number of seats in the next election. A significant Lib Dem presence in the Commons would likely hold Labour’s feet to the fire on constitutional issues including devolution, and push back against some of the centralising tendencies within the Party. Could the Greens, who may win a new parliamentary seat in Bristol, use their control of the council there to explore ideas around investment in community-owned enterprises? How might Conservatives, seeking to ensure the legacy of the current parliament, work with Labour parliamentarians to ensure there is some continuity between existing funds such as the Community Ownership Fund and the Long-Term Plan for Towns and whatever comes next? 

What next? 

Respect’ and ‘ordinary hope’ are both emerging ways of thinking about Labour’s North Star, and there were smatterings of both throughout the manifesto. If this is the case, how can we ensure that this is to the benefit of community business? Labour have made much of their ‘missions’ – seeking partnership with those beyond the state. So far, lots of this has been at the national level with big business.  

How do the missions work at a neighbourhood level? Understanding this will be as important as poring over the manifestos. It’s something we’ll be exploring in the coming months.