The Week

The GEek 14 June 2024

Patrick King
Senior Researcher

Week 3 of the GEek and we’ve now passed the halfway point of the campaign (and breathe). 😮‍💨

In Reform towers we have been rapidly analysing the main parties’ manifestos to produce our snap analyses.

Beginning with the Lib Dems on Monday (the “it’s all much easier if you’re not delivering these pledges” manifesto), the Conservatives on Tuesday (the “aren’t you promising to fix things you’ve already had the chance to?” manifesto); and Labour yesterday (the “we plan to have a great plan” manifesto). Since we’ve already reacted to the strengths and weaknesses of each, we thought we’d use today’s the GEek to highlight three things the manifestos didn’t tell us.

First, to address the fiscal elephant in the room, none are actually fully costed.

True, they tell us how they’ll pay for new spending commitments. Albeit with the rather dubious claim by all three of the main parties that they’d raise billions from cutting consultancy spending (capability that it’d cost money to replace in the civil service) and clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, which given the £5-7 billion this is expected to raise, it’s surprising HMRC hasn’t already thought to do. 🤔

But, suspiciously, none have a line in their costings tables, or indeed policies in their manifestos, telling us how they’d approach the £10-20 billion of real-terms cuts to public services already baked into departmental spending settlements. Manifestos are just as revealing for what they leave out: and these are immensely difficult trade-offs that an incoming government will be unable to avoid.

Second, in the context of such stark constraints on departmental spending, it was notable that parties are still committed to sizeable expansions in the number of frontline workers. It’s all well and good to have 8,000 more GPs8,000 additional police officers or 6,500 more teachers, but if the basics of fit for purpose public sector estates and basic tech to perform core functions, and a joined-up plan to improve falling public sector productivity are not in place, a bigger workforce will not have the expected impact.

Third, and we might be beginning to sound like a broken record here, but… we still didn’t get anything that amounted to a serious, fully-costed plan to fix social care. While the Lib Dems should be commended for making social care a big part of their campaign, even they haven’t told us how they’d pay for the pledge of universal personal care — or provided any detail on residential care. And while both the Lib Dem and Labour manifestos talk about higher pay for care workers, neither have any plan for paying for that.

In place of an actual plan, we get vague commitments to “forge a new consensus on funding” (in the Lib Dem case); and “build consensus for longer-term reform” (in Labour’s manifesto). The Conservatives recommit to introducing the long-promised cap on care costs.

What’s true of these manifestos, is also true of the Green party’s: on steroids.

Despite claims that their manifesto is costed, we can’t help but wonder whether their 1% tax on wealth above £10 million and 2% on assets above £1 billion — which it claims will raise £50-70 billion(!) — would pass OBR or HMT scrutiny (not least given the shaky evidence base around implementing an annual tax on net wealth). We’re also not told how the Green’s would pay for their longer-term ambition of introducing UBI (our thoughts on that particular zombie policy idea in a Select Commission session with our Director here).

The Greens also go big on workforce expansion: committing >40 billion of additional spending to staffing the NHS and schools, though interestingly, don’t put a number on how many clinicians would be recruited by increasing the budget for “NHS staff costs” or how much teachers would be recruited to resolve a “teacher recruitment crisis”.

Finally, like the Lib Dems, the Greens commit to free personal care, and to their credit argue for a structured career pathway for carers (with national pay, terms and conditions and a workforce plan). But, also like the Lib Dems, simply say that to help those struggling to afford residential care, local authorities will need to be properly funded, though the “£5 billion a year” they commit to this is conspicuously missing from their overall table of costings.

Policy spotlight...

In our analysis of the Conservative manifesto, we were positive about the fact they’d offered specific policies to reform Whitehall — including moving more civil service jobs out of London, to hubs in places like Stoke and Wolverhampton, and doubling expertise in tech and AI. We appreciate it’s not (weirdly) a vote-winning topic, but delivering any of government’s priorities relies on a high-performing civil service.

The other parties had little so say on this crucial topic; though Labour reiterated their commitment to establishing “mission-driven” government, and the manifesto itself was largely organised around these missions.

Earlier this year, Reform offered a step-by-step guide for what it would take to deliver missions. Given the 1,000 fires an incoming government will be faced with putting out, if they’re treated as ‘business-as-usual’ — and stacked onto an already-stretched government machine — they’re bound to fail. Instead, mission leads should be granted flexibility to circumvent usual Whitehall bureaucracy, with personal sponsorship from the PM.

We also published a major report in May, setting out how the civil service can recruit exceptional talent, and boost productivity. Given the scale and complexity of Whitehall’s work — from pursuing Net Zero to building a more resilient State — it is vital talent is taken seriously and the civil service can attract the best minds.

We were therefore pleased to see several of these ideas being considered by Labour in what the FT describes today as the “largest shake-up” of Whitehall in decades: for example, that Starmer would personally head up the boards responsible for missions, and that Whitehall would draw on more “private sector expertise” to deliver them.