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Do manifestos matter?

22 November 2019

This week the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Parties have published their manifestos for the 2019 General election. Manifestos mainly matter because they set the programme that governments plan to announce. Given current opinion polls, the Conservative party’s manifesto (due next week) may yet prove to be the most important but, having failed to predict the last few elections who knows what’s going to happen in the 12 December vote. Whoever forms the next government, one thing I’ve learnt over the years is that promises in the manifestos from parties ends up as government policy a few years later. Here are four examples of a manifesto promise from a losing party becoming the policy of the incoming government: In 2017, Labour’s manifesto promised higher spending on schools but the Conservative manifesto didn’t. The Conservative government increased school spending in 2017, 2018 and 2019 In 2015, Labour’s manifesto made detailed proposals on reforming the post-16 vocational courses. The Conservatives made much broader promises and then, in government, commissioned the Sainsbury review which came up with a plan for a new post-16 technical curriculum Going back to 2005, the Conservatives promised to abolish the Learning and Skills Council while the Liberal Democrats promised to close the school and college funding gap. By 2010, the Labour government had acted on both issues, neither of which had been in their own 2005 manifesto. On the other hand, some promises get made but never quite get implemented. All three main parties in England have promised to abolish higher education fees in recent elections (Conservatives in 2005; Liberal Democrats in 2005 and 2010 and Labour in 2017 ) but they either didn’t win or didn’t implement what they’ve promised. So, having tried to persuade you that every manifesto might matter, what are the three big takeaways for colleges from this week’s crop of 2019 manifestos? First of all, there’s the stronger place of further education and lifelong learning. The bigger emphasis on this area prompted WonkHE to describe this as the “skills election”. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s striking to see extra spending on 16 to 18-year-olds and adults in all three manifestos published this week. All three parties both promise to raise 16-18 funding rates with Labour setting the highest figure of £4,900 by 2024-5. All three parties promise extra spending on adult education. Labour and the Lib Dems promise extra funding for disadvantaged young people. These sort of spending promises are easy to make but we’re in a post-austerity period where the Conservative party has promised looser fiscal targets. What may matter as much as the detail is the direction. Labour’s spending promises in 2017 allocated 10% of their national education budget for further education (£2.5 billion out of £25 billion). This time around, it’s 20% (4.7 out of 24). Second, there’s the promise of reform. The English education system is currently a forest of regulators and agencies and it’s striking this time around that more of them are in the political frame. The Greens would remove the entire national structure in education and decentralise. Labour and Lib Dems don’t go so far but both promise reform of Ofsted. Labour also have the Office for Students in their sights – no longer a market regulator but, instead an arm of the National Education Service. I doubt the Conservatives will have anything to say on this sort of detailed issue but future reform seems possible. There is more interest these days in directing the system. As the government’s own Post-18 review said in the summer, “post-18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces”. The Department for Education has been marking time for the last few years because of Brexit and because the government has no majority in Parliament. If these facts change then Ministers may want to trim the forest. Third and finally we’re a country facing big issues. This is supposed to be the Brexit election but many people, young and old, are talking about climate change. We have a system in which politicians make grand promises to win elections and an economy that may, at some point, lurch into a recession for reasons entirely beyond their control. I don’t think further education will sway the overall result but it may affect some votes at the margin and whatever happens in December, we’ll be better able to deal with these challenges in the 2020s if we have an even stronger education and skills system.