The policy and spending commitments of the major parties seem much more dramatic when described by their competitors. Now that most of the manifestos are out, it seems like such an anti-climax, since the parties themselves have covered so many of their commitments in fudge. As a whole, it is not clear what any of the major parties would really do differently if they formed part of a government.
In the UK debates, when described by their competitors, the commitments of each party seemed refreshingly clear and starkly different: the Conservatives would massively reduce welfare and continue to punish the poorest in society, Labour would trash the budget, and the Liberal Democrats would do whatever was in the middle of those two positions. Now, I’m not so sure. The Conservatives and Labour don’t seem too far apart on welfare cuts: both signal a cap on the maximum people can claim, place a limit on the time that young people can remain out of work and on benefits, and signal new rules to limit the benefits claimed by immigrants. Both are committed to the minimum wage, argue that the lowest paid should pay less tax, and both promise to address the worst excesses of zero-hours contracts while leaving plenty of wiggle room in the implementation (since any effective new regulation is easier said than done).
Both parties also promise to reduce the budget deficit each year while maintaining the living standards of the working and middle classes and asking those with the ‘broadest shoulders’ to pay a little more (without checking the manifestos, can you tell which party describes its plan in that way?). The Conservatives have also gone a bit Labour by promising major funding increases in areas like health without exactly saying where the money would come from (and their promise would work well with the Liberal Democrat commitment to better fund mental health).
The biggest anti-climax is yet to come with the launch of the SNP’s manifesto. So far, we know two things that we pretty much knew already. First, the UK parties will maintain a commitment to key spending areas in England, such as health and education, which will produce budget ‘consequentials’ for Scotland. Second, they aim to keep their ‘vow’ to implement the recommendations of the Smith Commission to give ‘extensive new powers’ to Scotland, including some taxation powers, while maintaining the Barnett formula (again, can you tell which party used which phrase?). Only Labour hints at going a little bit further to deliver ‘home rule’. We also now know that all three parties want to address the ‘English question’, albeit with the Conservatives using the strongest language (referring specifically to Scottish MPs).
What we don’t know is how the SNP will frame the issue of ‘full fiscal autonomy’ (FFA), but you can expect it to make less of a commitment than Scottish Labour suggests (as I write, Scottish Labour’s web page is dominated by 5 blog posts on the dangers of FFA). To all intents and purposes, this is a policy that no party wants – the UK parties oppose it fundamentally, and the SNP really wants fiscal autonomy via independence – and won’t happen. The fact that we are talking about it so much reflects the current nature of our debate: the commitments of the major parties are much more dramatic when described by their competitors