Inside the Black Box: Public First on the Manifesto Process and the Tory Leadership Election

Yesterday morning Public First were delighted to host a packed client seminar in Westminster looking at manifesto formulation in the run-in to the next general election. A panel of PF’s top team, chaired by me, were present to take the audience through policy development between now and 2024:

  • Rachel Wolf, PF founding partner and co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto
  • Olivia Bailey, PF director and until recently head of domestic policy in Keir Starmer’s office
  • Vinous Ali, PF director and a former adviser on home affairs to the Liberal Democrat leadership

The meeting was conceived long before the defenestration of Boris Johnson, and the conversation was more than a little diverted by the battle to replace him, but it was fascinating nonetheless. With Labour flying high in the polls and the Lib Dems resurgent, there were hugely valuable insights from across the political spectrum.

These were my reflections:

1. First up, Rachel suggested that the Conservative Party leadership race represented something of a recast for the government agenda. The speed of the timetable has forced some candidates into making policy on the fly, especially in regard to tax and revenue, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a lot of space for new thinking once a winner is picked and they are staring down the barrel of an election in two years time.

2. Labour will not change tack – in policy or political terms – as a result of the change of Tory leadership. They will continue to double down on integrity, growth, health and crime. Together with a strong commitment to environmental policies, these are the areas that Labour will look to have the most developed pitches in 2024. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile would double down on dividing lines between them and the Conservatives particularly around “internationalism” and compassionate politics e.g asylum.

3. Conservative manifesto development is highly centralised, with very little consultation of the party, either in parliament or the grassroots. It is however subject to a high degree of opinion research input – both polling and focus groups. If you are proposing policy ideas, it is essential to frame them in this way.

4. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have a considerably more process-driven approach to manifesto development, with various party structures having a mandated say. However, both parties are desperate for ideas to feed into these processes, and party chiefs have an increasing enthusiasm for them to be grounded in public opinion.

5. All three parties – including the Tories under whoever wins the keys to No 10 – are looking for policy ideas. The new Conservative leader will want something fresh to differentiate him or her from Boris. The same is true of both opposition parties because they’re light on ideas and light on manpower to develop them. But they won’t just adopt any policies: they will only listen if the proposals are framed around the political narrative they have set. However…

6. … there is no money left. Whoever forms the next government will have their hands tied behind their back by the incredibly challenging fiscal environment facing this country. Any proposal or policy idea being pitched into any of the manifestos will be better received if it comes with a detailed budget. It will be even more gratefully received if it doesn’t cost very much – or even nothing.

7. This is especially true of Labour and the Lib Dems, who are both determined to be seen as a sensible potential party of government. Nothing must look like profligacy; fiscal responsibility is the name of the game.

8. Whatever some of the right wingers in the Tory leadership race say, Net Zero and the green agenda isn’t going anywhere. It is hugely popular with the electorate – whatever Suella Braverman or Kemi Banedoch might think – and all three parties are likely to put it square and centre as they develop policies ahead of 2024. For both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats we can expect green policies to be seen as a way to deliver jobs, growth and ease the cost of living.

9. Levelling up remains hard to understand in terms of both policy and public opinion – but it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Conservative candidates may not be saying much about it, but whoever wins will need to maintain – to a lesser or greater extent – the electoral coalition that delivered Boris his landslide. This means that by the next election they will need to be able to point to tangible improvements in the towns and small cities of the Red Wall. Ideas therefore will be a premium. Especially ideas that can be proven to be popular – and that can be delivered at speed.

10. Labour will continue to resist the term “levelling up”. But it doesn’t mean that it won’t need policy proposals that show it is back in touch with the voters who deserted it in 2019. Its manifesto will need to show that it understands the needs of “left behind communities” – think crime, think high streets, think local healthcare provision.

11. Brexit is (nearly) dead as an issue. The Lib Dems certainly don’t want to talk about it – and that is reflected in the polling which show it is no longer an issue of any electoral salience. Labour is keen to underline that it wants to ‘make Brexit work’. There may be some effort in the next year or two from the Tory side to paint Labour as the “party of rejoin” but this will be playing politics, and no more.

PS: Nobody in our wonderful audience decided to throw in a question about housing supply and planning reform – but we should be in no doubt that all three parties will be thinking about this particular policy challenge in the run into the next election and beyond.