Position papers

Labour and Conservative Manifestos 2019

17 February 2020 1322 Views


This work examines the 2019 Labour and Conservative manifestos to see in what way their priorities, philosophies, visions, and positions on the Brexit impasse and socio-economic issues vary or remain unchanged in comparison to previous manifestos. The article carries out a content analysis of the manifestos to examine the underlining themes. The choice of only Labour and Conservative manifestos was made due to the fact that they are the most popular parties in the United Kingdom and, partly due to the first past the post system, they are the only two parties since the Second World War able to form a government alone.

Definition of Manifestos

The British term ‘manifesto’, also known as an ‘election programme’, is a document issued by political parties prior to elections in order to attract voters (Werner,Lacewell, and Volkens, 2015). They are seen as public declarations that are ‘‘staple features of British elections’’(Allen & Bara, 2016, p.2). Dennis Kavannagh states that “British political parties are programmatic. They fight general elections on manifestos and promise, if elected, to carry themout. Leaders regard the promises of a manifesto as a ‘contract’ between the party and its voters” (Kavannagh 2000, p. 133).

However, this representation seems very idealistic as the real question is whether political parties implement their manifestos and fulfil their election promises to voters. This raises the question of the relationship between parties and their voters. Do parties consider people as subjects or citizens? Should manifestos be considered as precise governing programmes or do they merely create an idealised image of the party and its vision? Do manifestos have a real value when it comes to actual governance?

The Tamworth Manifesto was the first manifesto introduced by the Tories (later named the Conservatives) in 1834. It was a sort of public statement delivered by Sir Robert Peel to repair the institutional abuses that had taken place in preceding years. People felt disillusioned and saw it as vague and devoid of “principles” (Blake, 1972).

In the early twentieth century, manifestos were not detailed and few attempts were made to include social problems since members of parliament were largely large landowners, merchants and representatives of religious groups. The working class and merchants were not represented, since they were not given the right to vote. It was not until 1918 that the right to vote was extended to all male adults and, in 1928, to all adult women.

After the Second World War, manifestos became more detailed and structured. Each manifesto began with the title “Manifesto”, and began with the party leader’s introductory statement entitled a ‘foreword’ (which is not technically regarded as part of the manifesto), a table of contents and a text. Each manifesto is grouped into major policy areas (the economy, social policy, foreign affairs, etc.), which are split into subcategories.


Researchers face some challenges when analysing election programmes.One question is whether researchers should analyse the printed version of a manifesto or the online one, which may be different. Given technological changes and the extensive use of smartphones - 84% of the UK citizens own smartphones (Statistica.com) - political parties focus on the online versions of their manifestos.Different versions may be produced, with both short and long versions. Given that members of the public are busy and do not have much time to read manifestos, short versions are often produced for the wider electorate. Longer online versions, setting out detailed programmes, are usually directed at political commentators rather than ordinary voters.

The influence of the media is very significant in Britain, and particularly noticeable during election campaigns. A report published by the London School of Economics (LSE) reveals that the media’s function has changed from being a ‘watchdog’ to an ‘attackdog’. When Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour Party leader in 2016, much of the UK media have been accused of trying to discredit the radical left and push people to vote for the Conservatives. Robert Murdoch and Conrad Black, two well-known media moguls, have been very influential in this regard.

Another challenge is the lack of trust in manifestos and election promises. There is a clear gulf between politicians’ manifestos and their actual performance when in government. Politicians are also blamed for focusing only on popular issues and concealing unpopular plans in their programmes such as cuts in public expenditure. However, politicians and political supporters point to external reasons that may prevent officials from implementing their policies once in government and respecting their election manifestos. Governments cannot act independently of events.Crises, independent commission reports, and IMF conditions are some of the external events that may force party leaders to break their promises or act against their own will.

Analysis of the 2019 Conservative and Labour Party Manifestos

Despite the Labour Party’s efforts to place social and economic issues as number one, the 2019 General Election was fought mainly on the Brexit issue.The period of overlap between Labour and Conservative policies 1997-2008 (Tony Blair, elected in 1997, shifted Labour to the centre right and largely continued Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social reforms), ended when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the leader of the Labour Party in 2016. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto was influenced by neoliberal theorists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and in its fight against Socialism envisaged abolishing state intervention and incomes policy and curbing trade union power (Hutton, 1996,p.89). Boris Johnson was also influenced by right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Heritage Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs in his fight against Socialism (Laurence et al, 2019). The 2019 Manifesto called for “responsibility” and “freedom”.

In contrast, since 2016, the Labour Party has abandoned its commitment to ‘Blairism’ and centrist values. The Labour Party has committed to nationalising many utilities such as the railways, on the grounds of greater fairness for the public.This has a symbolic significance. It is based on Socialist principles regarding the redistribution of wealth and the values of “freedom, equality, community, brotherhood, social justice, the classless society, cooperation, progress, peace, prosperity, abundance, happiness” (Hutton, 1996, p. 47).

 In examining both parties’ manifestos, we focus on three key issues: social policies, the economy and Brexit to show whether the two major parties have distinct policies and priorities.

Social Policies

The Labour Party manifesto shifts to the left and states that it is committed to a socialist agenda: “Social justice will define Labour’s approach” (p.12). It states a commitment to the values of equality, social justice and cooperation. Regarding social policies, the Labour Party promises an alternative platform. It states that although the Conservative Party gave the impression that it wants to increase public expenditure on the National Health Service, education and social care, its policies have further impoverished the poor.

On the other hand, the Conservative Party seems to try to please everybody. Its 2019 manifesto states, “We promise not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT” (p.14). The Party has pursued its policies of privatisation and cuts in public expenditure.

Experts, however, dismiss these promises, claiming that the Conservative Party has not changed. For instance, the Director of the Insitute for Fiscal studies, Paul Johnson, considers the social policy to be “modest” and does not include radical policies (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2019).

The Economy

Labour promises in its 2019 manifesto to ensure a “more equitable and enlightened economy” (p.12). It promises to introduce a progressive taxation system to reduce inequality. Moreover, the Party promises to reduce pollution and commits itself to promoting a “green economy” and clean energy. In contrast, the Conservative party’s emphasisis on increasing productivity and efficiency.

Regarding industrial relations,the Labour Party promisesto “work in partnership with the workforce and trade unions in every sector of our economy” (p.12). It considers the role of unions to be crucial in negotiating price and wage levels and maintaining social stability. It is as if the Labour Party is seeking to renew the values of the Social Contract established in the 1970s between the Wilson and Callaghan governments (1966-1978) and the unions. However, this may be a risky move as that period is still regarded negatively by much of the public and the strength of the unions at that time is perceived to have contributed to crippling economic growth.

Moreover, the Labour Party promises to renationalise utilities within 100 days of coming to office: “Tory privatisation of our utilities has been a disaster” (p. 15). It pledges to take over services such as energy, gas and electricity. However, many politicians questioned this decision as the Party does not explain how it would compensate the energy companies and networks.This commitment to taking back control of energy companies may prove to be disastrous for the Labour Party’s electoral chances as these companies have significant influence in the media and in policy-making. For instance, a report recently revealed that oil and gas companies are spending $200m on “lobbying to delay, control or  block policies to tackle climate change” (Laville, 2019).

We may venture to draw a parallel between the 1983 and 2019 Labour Party manifestos. The 1983 electoral programme was widely described as the “longest suicide note in history”,as the priorities and philosophies it set out were seen as ‘old-fashioned’. However, since hecame to power, Corbyn has worked to reshape Labour policies and reintegrate many of the same promises as those contained in the 1983 vision. While this has been criticised by sections of the media,Labour Party membership jumped from 201,000 in 2015 to 388,000 in 2017 after Corbyn took over, suggesting that his ideas do inspire a section of the electorate (MacAskill, 2016).

As a solution to Britain’s problems, the Conservative Party proposes a monetarist philosophy which stressed the idea of individual responsibility. It criticises ideas of collectivism and valorises individualism.The Conservative Party promises to end the Labour Party’s “irresponsibility”and to cut public expenditure: “We will not borrow to fund day-to-day spending, but will invest thoughtfully and responsibly in infrastructure right across our country in order to increase productivity and wages” (p.7). The Conservative Party believes in the free market, choice and individualism, and portrays Labour and the unions as restricting personal responsibility (Hutton, 1996,p. 28).

The Party promises to liberate Britain’s potential: “Once we get Brexit done, we can use our new freedomto ensure that Britain’s businesses can unleash their enormous potential-they can invest, hire, export and grow,rather than being crushed by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s inexorable hostility towards aspiration and entrepreneurship” (p.32).The 2019 Manifesto views the state as an obstacle to personal freedom and chimes with the ideas of Milton Friedman who, in his book Free to Choose, claims that state intervention restricts individual freedom and impedes economic growth: ‘‘Sooner or later, and perhaps sooner than many of us expect, ever bigger governments will destroy both the prosperity that we care for in the free market and even the human freedom proclaimed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence’’ (Friedman, in Williams, 47).


The Conservative Party brings the issue of Brexit to the forefront of its manifesto. The Party promises to “get Brexit done- so that we can unleash the potential of this great nation” (p. 5). It adds that “there are no ifs or buts”. The Party presents itself as responsible and reliable. Meanwhile, the Labour Party places the Brexit question at the end of its manifesto.

While the Conservative Party mentions the word ‘Brexit’ 60 times in its manifesto, the word is repeated just 15 times in the Labour manifesto (noting that words such as ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ are not counted’). The Conservative Party uses words that signal that its position is clear and straightforward on the issue of Brexit. In contrast, the Labour Party sends signals that are very cautious.


At the time of writing this article, days after Election Day, it appears that the Conservative Party manifesto and campaign succeeded in mobilising public opinion against Jeremy Corbyn. Many commentators have highlighted the increasing use of divisive, nationalist and tribalistic language by politicians and in the media. Issues such as inequality and social justice appear to be taking a back seat to the debate about Brexit and Britain’s place in the world. The Labour Party’s defeat may be explained by its failure to “market” its socialist agenda. The Labour manifesto clearly indicated a new Party image, as a socialist party committed to state ownership of utilities, cooperation between the government and trade unions, and an increase in public expenditure on the NHS and social services.

Unlike previous decades when political commentators could barely identify any difference between Conservative and Labour Party manifestos, in the 2019 election campaign, politicians were clearly divided and presented very different alternatives and priorities. In this regard, party manifestos showed that they have a value, articulating and presenting the parties’ differing policies and visions very clearly to voters. The 2019 manifestos, more than in any British election in the last 30 years, are an indicator of the polarisation of British politics between two distinct philosophies - socialism and neo-liberalism.

Hatem Sebei




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