Pledges And Promises

11/05/2017 11:40 BST | Updated 11/05/2017 11:40 BST

The fun will shortly begin.

"Sweet lovers" may love the spring, but the public's enthusiasm for general election campaigns is rather more muted. And yet they have something in common. In spring, as the buds burst open, we see the renewal of much with which we are familiar returned to us in a newly refreshed form. We all know what the tulips look like but that does not take away from the pleasure of seeing them again. General election manifestos are rather similar. We have all seen pledges, red lines and targets before, it is just that now they are to emerge afresh in new colours, brighter, bolder, more plausible.

The next few days will see the publication of the new manifestos, each resplendent with a picture of the party leader on the front (well, I suppose they will, although Labour are rather unpredictable about that sort of thing at the moment), each full of pledges, targets, red lines, promises, served (at least in the case of the Liberal Democrats) with a spicing of hypothecation. No doubt there will be surprises and it would be folly to predict policies before the documents emerge. However, as you sit in your favourite armchair, coffee and brandy at the right hand, manifestos at the left, looking forward to a fascinating evening's reading, there are one or two points which need to be borne in mind.

Parties which do not expect to come to power can be far freer in their promises than the serious contenders. They can never be accused of breaking a pledge because they will never have the chance to do so. The viability of their proposals is not likely to be tested either. They may promise to put up the minimum wage on the grounds that that will attract a particular segment of the electorate without worrying about the effect on, say, the funding of care for the elderly. Of course it all goes pear-shaped if unexpectedly they do get power, and a rash pledge to abolish university fees (something which the realities of coalition government made impracticable) was one of the main reasons for the decline in the Liberal Democrat vote in 2015. If only they had simply said that they were against University fees and would work to keep them down as far as possible.

The odd thing about this election is that everyone seems to expect the Conservatives to win. They may turn out to be wrong about that, of course, but, whether they are or not, it is only the Conservatives who will be drawing up a manifesto in the expectation that they will have to keep the pledges they make. Bearing in mind that pledges restrict freedom of movement and that that is essential to government in these uncertain times, they will give as few as possible.

We have already seen some movement in this area. Their 2015 manifesto contained a pledge not to increase income tax or national insurance. That pledge came back to bite the Chancellor at the last budget when he wished to conform the national insurance contributions of the self-employed to those paid by employed earners. The pledge is unlikely to be repeated, not merely because Mrs May will want maximum flexibility but also because it is unnecessary. The electorate know that the Tories don't like raising direct taxes so there is no need for them to make promises on the point. A few references to themselves as the party of low taxation will be enough.

Contrast the position of Labour where shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has already given a pledge to restrict income tax increases to the wealthiest 5% of the population because a public perception that the party would raise taxes to fund social expenditure would otherwise lose it votes. Perhaps though the Lib Dems stance in this area is the most distinctive with a promise of 1 penny on income tax in order to fund the NHS. Confirmation that income will be spent in a particular way is normally undesirable because circumstances change and it may be needed elsewhere. Presumably, however, the Lib Dems have taken the view either that they are unlikely to be elected anyway (they should be careful here - remember the pledge on student fees) or that the NHS is such a bottomless pit that is inconceivable that additional expenditure will not absorb the money raised. Again, that is probably right but it would only take big advances in robotics for NHS expenditure to drop quite considerably.

Then, of course, there is the triple lock on the state pension, introduced by the Conservatives as a way of anchoring its vote among the elderly. In recent years the locks on inflation and earnings have been uncontentious but then neither measure has grown substantially. Suppose that we move into a heavily inflationary environment or that earnings, which have been left behind, catch up suddenly. Does the Chancellor really want a tail to the problem in the form of automatically increasing pensions? Perhaps he would put up pensions or perhaps he would not, but that is surely something to be considered in the circumstances which rule at the time.

The automatic increase of 2½% was, of course, badly needed in 2010 when pensioner poverty was a worry. The must come a time, however, when it is seen to have achieved its object and to have become a simple bribe to the grey voter. Is that now or later? Who then will promise to maintain the triple lock? Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour, it seems, but they may well feel that their pledge is unlikely to be called in practice. Whether the government matches their promise will be an interesting test of confidence. Does it believe that the pensioners will trust it to treat them fairly or will they only support it if they have cast iron guarantees?

To judge from her tight-lipped approach, one would have thought that the Prime Minister would resist making commitments. Probably she will, but one area may prove an exception. If press reports are to believed, the target of 100,000 net immigration is likely to be retained despite the Conservatives' failure to deliver it in the past, in years when Mrs May was Home Secretary. There is of course a difference between a pledge and a target in that the former constrains options while the latter merely sets a measure for future performance. If this target is in the Conservative manifesto it will be very interesting indeed to see how it is worded.

Off goes the roundabout - pledges, promises, red lines and their equivalents, streaming in the wind. It is a pattern which we are well used to. The difference this time is that it is only the Conservatives who currently believe that their pledges may be called and that the current popularity of the Prime Minister means that they can include fewer than usual. In view of the flexibility they will need in negotiating with the EU, they should keep them to a minimum.

First published in the ShawSheet