What is a General Election manifesto? Conservatives unveil more tax cuts to attract voters

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives for the launch the Conservative Party General Election manifesto at Silverstone in Towcester, Northamptonshire (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives for the launch the Conservative Party General Election manifesto at Silverstone in Towcester, Northamptonshire (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

The Conservatives became the second major party to reveal their manifesto ahead of July’s general election today (June 11).

Gearing up for a political showdown next month, Rishi Sunak has unveiled a number of party pledges and tax cuts in a bid to appeal to the electorate.

Less than a month before the UK goes to the polls, the parties have all been working on election manifestos in the hopes of winning more votes in July.

The Liberal Democrats kicked off this week by releasing their manifesto, “For A Fair Deal,” just one day before the Tories followed suit. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also confirmed that his party’s manifesto will drop on Thursday.

According to a recent Ipsos poll, the Labour and Tory manifestos could actually be a key decider for voters who aren’t necessarily convinced by either party leader.

But what exactly is an election manifesto - and what does it mean for the UK government?

What is an election manifesto?

A manifesto is a document that sets out a party’s programme for government if it succeeds in gaining power after polling day.

There is no particular set format for how they are presented, and the amount of detail they provide varies from party to party.

Generally, they include a party’s main policies on issues such as the economy, taxation, health, education, law and order, defence and the environment.

According to the Institute for Government, they have grown more detailed over time. In 1945 they typically contained between 3,000 to 6,000 words – by the last election in 2019 that had risen to more than 20,000.

Labour’s 1945 manifesto had just seven specific pledges – in 2019 both the Conservatives and Labour had more than 160.

This week’s Lib Dem manifesto consisted of 114 pages, covering everything from the environment and healthcare to education policies.

Do parties have to honour their manifesto promises in government?

In short, no. Manifestos reflect the political circumstances of the day, and all parties know they may have to alter their plans in response to external events—such as wars or the COVID-19 pandemic.

If no party gains an overall majority, two or more parties may come together after the election to form a coalition, which will inevitably involve compromises on their manifesto policies (like what happened when the Tories and the Lib Dems teamed up in 2010).

What’s more, parties abandon key commitments at their peril. At the time, the Liberal Democrats campaigned on a manifesto promise to phase out university tuition fees, while party leader Nick Clegg repeatedly pledged they would not go up.

But after they joined the Conservatives in coalition they were forced to accept a threefold increase as part of the “austerity” drive to get the public finances back under control following the global financial crash.

The abandonment of such a high-profile promise was widely seen as one of the main reasons why the party suffered such a hammering the next time voters went to the polls in the 2015 election.

What impact do manifestos have on the campaign?

These days the parties view their manifestos as important tools, both for setting out their policy offer to voters and for shaping media coverage of their campaign.

Get them wrong, and the consequences can be dire. At the 2017 election, with the Tories comfortably ahead in the polls, Theresa May unexpectedly set out new proposals for funding adult social care at the party’s manifesto launch.

The plan, dubbed the “dementia tax” by opposition parties, provoked a furious backlash amid claims older people would be forced to sell their homes to pay for their care, forcing the Conservatives into a hasty U-turn.

The Tory campaign never recovered, and having been predicted to return with an enhanced majority, they actually lost seats and Ms May was humiliatingly forced to turn to Northern Ireland’s DUP to prop up her government.

In the 1983 election, Labour under Michael Foot produced a manifesto famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”.

The package of left-wing policies – including unilateral disarmament, re-nationalisation of privatised industries and withdrawal from the European Economic Community – was seen as one of the factors which led to Margaret Thatcher being returned in a landslide.

What happens to manifestos after the election?

The manifestos of the losing parties may well be junked as they return to the policy drawing board, particularly if defeat results in a change of leadership.

The manifesto of the victors remains an important document. Under the Salisbury convention, the House of Lords will not vote down legislation if it was included in the governing party’s manifesto.