Over the last couple of weeks, I have been carrying out an exercise looking at the UK election manifestoes and trying assess how well they engage with the constitutional issues devolution presents. In particular, I’m interested in the extent to which the parties show their understanding of what devolution means in their policy proposals (rather than just the ones about constitutional matters). The full results will appear shortly as a working paper from Edinburgh University, but in the meantime I thought it worth summarising the results and posting them here.
What I’ve tried to assess
I’ve looked at three separate aspects of the manifestoes: the policy commitments made about devolution, the extent to which the policy commitments generally reflect issues at stake in the election, and the extent to which manifestoes set out the implications of policies for each part of the UK. The point of the exercise is not to express political judgements, but to understand how the parties have adapted to devolution, and the constitutional constraints it imposes. Underling this issue is whether parties are in fact setting out policies in their manifestoes that they can deliver, through the UK Parliament, or whether they are seeking to advance a party programme even when they can’t implement large parts of that through a Westminster mandate.
Regarding the first, I’ve tried to assess whether the parties have considered all the issues involved or omitted some, and whether their proposals are workable. Regarding the second, I’ve looked at the extent to which manifestos have made commitments for Scotland or Wales about devolved policy matters like health and education, law and order (for Scotland only), and how they’ve approached the interaction between devolved and non-devolved aspects of areas like transport and the environment. It also takes into account the extent to which parties claim credit for devolved policies, where that is relevant. The third takes into account how clearly parties do something one might expect them to – specific local effects of their UK-level polices. The second criterion picks up whether parties have sought to disregard constitutional divisions of power in drafting their manifestoes; the third whether they have used the manifesto to highlight something that constitutionally they should.
In doing this, I’ve looked at manifestoes from the major parties operating in Britain. That means the three Britain-wide parties (Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats), all of whom have published three manifestoes: a British one, and ones for Scotland and Wales. The analysis also covers Plaid Cymru and the SNP, the two Green parties (for England and Wales, and Scotland), and the UK Independence Party.
To try to summarise this, I’ve given scores for each party. I’ll set these out below, along with a brief explanation of how I reached them. The scores are calculated out of 10: 3 points for fullness and clarity of devolution policy proposals, 5 for observing constitutional divisions in policy proposals on ‘everyday’ matters, and 2 for highlighting specific territorial implications of UK-level policies.
How each party did, and why
Total score: 4/10
The Conservatives got 1.5 marks out of 3 for their devolution policy commitments, marked down for setting a rather vague timescale for their commitment on implementing the Calman recommendations for Scotland and a vagueness in their policy on a referendum for primary powers for Wales. They also lost credit because they omitted key recommendations on a needs-based review of the block grants (which is clearly party policy), and have an unworkable policy on corporation tax for Northern Ireland.
The Tories got 2.5/5 for their policy commitments. In the Scottish and Welsh manifestoes they were generally clear about what was and was not devolved, but this was not the case in the British manifesto which would lead readers to believe its promises apply across all Britain. There were some differences in the policies the parties set out for Scotland and Wales as well, and for Wales there was nothing about areas where legislative powers might need to be devolved to enable the Assembly to deliver policies it recommended. They got 0/2 for identifying the territorial implications of particular UK level policies.
The Green parties
Total score: 1.5/10
There are two separate Green parties contesting the election, as the party in England and Wales is separate from the Scottish Greens. The England and Wales party wholly overlooks devolution issues, unless one treats that as embracing its policy supporting localism. The Scottish party discusses key issues for Scotland: financial arrangements, independence, and the need to devolve further powers. However, it pays little attention in its discussion of substantive policy issues to whether matters are devolved or not, and most of its consideration of distinctively Scottish policy needs relate to devolved areas of policy.
Total score: 3.5/10
Labour got 1.5 marks out of 3 for their policy commitments, which were those already set out as UK Government policy – implementing a form of the Calman recommendations for Scotland, and working toward a referendum on legislative powers for Wales (in the Welsh manifesto, only, do they commit themselves to working for a ‘yes’ vote in that). They don’t discuss the West Lothian question, or any wider review of funding arrangements.
For their policy commitments, they get 1 out of 5. There is no attempt in the British manifesto to flag up devolution at all. The Scottish manifesto includes a paragraph noting that devolved matters are not at issue in the election, but then proceeds to discuss both devolved and non-devolved matters. The Welsh manifesto also makes commitments about devolved and non-devolved matters, but without any qualification about whether a matter is devolved or not.
However, Labour get 1 out of 2 for the way the manifestos – particularly the Welsh one – draw attention to the implications for Wales of UK policy commitments.
Total score: 6/10
The Lib Dems get 1.5 out of 3 for their constitutional proposals; these are marred by the complexity of what they propose for England (a written constitution), the unworkability of the federal approach they suggest, the lack of any timescale for their suggested financial reforms, and for implying that the UK Government has the sole decision about whether a referendum on primary powers in Wales goes ahead, rather than this needing Parliament’s approval.
The Lib Dems are the only one of the Britain-wide parties to include in their manifesto a note explaining that devolved matters are not at issue in this election. The note adds that the manifesto only concerns their priorities for Westminster. They get credit for this note, but not much as it’s in tiny print on the inside of the back cover and few readers will notice it. The British manifesto then goes on to make commitments for the whole range of policies, without further regard to whether they are devolved or not.
Their Scottish and Welsh manifestoes tackle devolution more explicitly. The Scottish one includes a ‘disclaimer’ statement similar to the British one, and proceeds to discuss devolved as well as non-devolved policy matters, though it treats devolved ones in a brief and sketchy manner and focuses on devolved ones. The Welsh manifesto clearly distinguishes between action at Westminster, in the National Assembly, or by the two in partnership on particular matters. This is highly devolution-literate, but still tries to make the most of matters that are not actually at issue in the election.
The Lib Dems are clearly the most devolution-conscious of the British parties, but get limited marks because they clearly seek to make promises about the party’s programme generally, regardless of what is at stake in the election.
Both the Scottish and Welsh manifestoes pay some attention to the territorial implications of non-devolved policy, but this is done in a rather patchy way in the Welsh one. The Scottish one is clearer about this. They get 1 point out of 2 for this.
Total score: 6.5/10
Plaid get 1.5 out of 3 for their workability of their constitutional position. This is because they overlook the role of Parliament in approving any referendum on primary powers for the National Assembly, and because they conflate a needs-based approach to funding with more money for Wales. Given the cutbacks looming in finance, they could secure such a formula but still end up with less money for the National Assembly.
They get 4 out of 5 for their substantive policy commitments. Generally, they discuss UK-level policies like the economy or defence, and when they talk of devolved areas they do so in terms of the powers that need to be devolved to the National Assembly to deal with them. That displays a high degree of constitutional literacy, but this is marred by claiming credit for a number of devolved policies such as education or the Welsh language.
Plaid get 1 out of 2 for their discussion of the territorial effects of UK-level policies, because they rarely quantify the effects in Wales of their policies.
Scottish National Party
Total score: 7.5/10
The SNP set out a detailed constitutional agenda, but one which carefully slides over difficult points. (For example, they support administrative reforms to the way the block grant is allocated, but not change in the methods used for that other than their preferred policy of ‘fiscal autonomy’.) They get 1.5 out of 3 for these policies.
Their substantive polices are very carefully framed to relate to non-devolved matters, or to argue the case for devolution of matters presently reserved to Westminster. They do, however, claim credit for a number of devolved policies pursued by the SNP Scottish Government since 2007, so get 4.5 out of 5.
They also argue the case for their preferred policies for Scotland very clearly in terms of their impact in Scotland, so get 1.5 out of 2 for that.
UK Independence Party
Total score: 0/10
UKIP get zero from this analysis. Their policies on devolution (to move toward a federal structure, in which the devolved legislatures would be replaced by the MPs from those parts of the UK, with MPs from English seats constituting an English Parliament) are unworkable and do not amount, as billed, to ‘retaining devolution’. The substantive policies they set out apply across the UK, without regard to whether they relate to devolved or non-devolved matters. They do not identify the particular territorial impacts of their policies at all.
Comparison with 2001
I carried out a somewhat similar exercise to this in 2001. The paper resulting from that is available HERE, for those interested. On that occasion (and assessing them in a different way), I gave the following marks out of 10:
Lib Dems 7.1
Plaid Cymru 6.4
While the SNP’s score has increased considerably since then, and that of the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru by small margins, those of Labour and the Lib Dems have decreased considerably. It would be wrong to read too much into this – the methods used in 2001 were significantly different from those this time around. But there is little basis to suggest that the parties’ understanding of devolution, or communication of its effects, has improved greatly since then, even though it is no longer a novel innovation but an established part of the political landscape.
Some concluding thoughts
This is an analysis that prizes clarity and constitutional principle over practical politics. The scores given aren’t reflections of any personal political preferences, let alone likely electoral success, but of how parties manage an issue of concern to policy-makers (and perhaps activists) but of little interest to voters at large.
Why have the nationalist parties done best out of this analysis? Part of the reason appears to be that they are simply more engaged in constitutional debates; this has been the mainstay of their campaigning for many years. They may well believe their supporters understand the issues involved, and their desire to expand the scope of devolved powers means that they are happy to use that issue as a major part of their electoral platform in a Westminster election. They have a significant advantage in another important way. They are only connected with the interests of one part of the UK, not with trying to make an appeal across Britain and deal with different interests in the various parts of the country. Again, this facilitates a clear-cut political approach, with much less pressure to fudge constitutional dividing lines.
Given the complexity of the political issues, it’s not much wonder that the three Britain-wide parties all adopt similar approaches. Each produces three different territorial manifestoes, with a master ‘British’ manifesto intended to apply to England only, and different versions tailoring their policies to voters in Scotland and Wales. To the extent they tackle questions of devolution, they do this by a footnote or by leaving these to the Scottish and Welsh manifestoes, so the implications of devolution are largely hidden from voters in England. Arguably, this mirrors popular understandings of how devolution works. The parties can be seen as choosing to maximise what is likely to appeal to the electorate rather than to set out policies with regard to the constitutional niceties of the situation. In this, the parties are nothing if not opportunistic.