Manifesto time: Tetris and the Manic Miners

Allegra Stratton of BBC Newsnight described manifesto week as like ‘a game of Tetris with six blocks’. It’s an analogy I like because I always preferred Tetris to Manic Miner but actually it’s been two weeks worth of manifesto launches. Technically we are still waiting for a couple to come, but I suspect that Arthur Scargill’s and the Socialist Labour Party may only be of marginal interest (but if you are, you can follow him on Twitter at @ScargillArthur).

But does anything significant come of them? Does anyone really read them? Do they make any real difference?

One important audience, though not obviously the main one (because that’s meant to be us) is the civil service. Officials in the Cabinet Office, No 10 and in each of the individual departments will be reading every word and every line as well as the spaces between them. Civil servants combing through manifestos is part of their ‘purdah’ routine. They’ll want to present a detailed programme of what and how to deliver promises in the early days of the next government. Each department will also be cooking up a batch of policy ideas and other pressing issues that they will present to incoming ministers when they arrive in May. These are the ‘we’ve had some ideas too’ files.

In 2001 I had the job in DFEE of going through the Conservative manifesto and also coming up with a few new ideas for education policy. This tells you all you need to know about how likely they thought of such a possibility. But I can rather proudly say I offered up an idea for good schools to partner up with weaker schools in their areas and share resources. This was entirely down to enlightened self interest, as our first child was approaching school age and it was clear that there was a ‘sharp elbowed’ choice, an ‘ok’ or ‘bog standard’ choice and a couple of right s(t)inkers. It may not have made the final file.

But more senior civil servants will all want to pitch ideas for the first Queen’s speech as well as their shopping lists of things that just need doing. All will come with a plan for legislation, deploying statutory instruments or making do with the current statute book with the last of these taking on more significance by the hour. They’ll also be looking for strong arguments and themes that they can take into the first Budget and Spending Review – even more so after the figures announced in the last Autumn Statement. The election campaign’s bidding war to offer up a slew of new spending commitments intensifies pressure especially after the Conservative commitment to find £8bn for the NHS can only come from other departmental budgets. Watch Andrew Marr’s recent interview with George Osborne – easily his most difficult media moment since the 2012 ‘omnishambles’ Budget.

Every number, word and detail from the major manifestos will make it into the departmental plans in some form. Possibly even the pictures. From the Conservatives’ commitment to £2.9 billion on scientific ‘grand challenges’ to Labour’s photograph of Lesley the Physicist. They all mean something.

The ‘possible cuts’ files will have a few multiple choice options – with some as easy to pick the preferred option as it is to enter a GMTV cash prize competition. There will be more difficult ones and each department will have been preparing a planned and possible cuts file. They will be hoping that incoming ministers don’t have to end up going too far down those lists and to see signs and preferences for some activities over others. So even a line on the importance of science or defence spending without a spending commitment will be seen as more valuable than finding nothing.

Bleeding stump arguments will be made ready. Some are already deploying them. There will also be other deals on the table – quid pro quos from officials – you’ve said you want to do ‘x’ in your manifesto. We can do that but we will also have to do ‘y’ and ‘z’ to make it happen. In the case of Labour’s £6k proposal, ‘y’ might be a plan for price and the regulation of private providers. In the plan to expand technical degrees ‘y’ might include a return to some form of mainstream number controls. In both cases ‘z’ is probably a decision about HEFCE, its levels of teaching funding and its regulatory role and reach.

Across government they’ll also be compiling a massive grid of possible coalitions and where the red lines are being set up. Trident, tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats pitching for Education Secretary as one of their deal options. Some lucky civil servants will also get to play each of the party leaders as they game the possible deals and outcomes. I’m going to guess at Jeremy Heywood, Chris Martin and Olly Robbins taking some of the major roles. If they can persuade him, it will be Peter Housden playing Nicola Sturgeon but I doubt they’ll bother with Farage or Bennett. Leanne Wood and Peter Robinson will need walk on parts.

Officials will also be looking in a bit more detail at each of the politicians currently holding their departmental briefs as well as some of the party specialists (select committee chairs, campaigners etc) and hoping that they are good negotiators, have lots of political capital and profile in and after the election. If they have to google them to find out who they are, it’s not a good sign…

But above all, civil servants will be lapping up the politics. Few will have time to kick back and enjoy the sunshine. They will be mining every polling and betting site well as all of the manifestos and key speeches. Purdah may provide a sort of calm before the storm, but it’s really a time of manic preparation, scenario planning and role play. And that’s before the real fun and games begins after the 7th May. Will anyone still have time for Fruit Ninja?

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Osborne’s Blues?

It’s the Budget on Wednesday. George Osborne’s sixth outing at the Despatch Box (not including Spending Reviews or Autumn Statements) could be his last, if the Conservatives don’t win or lead the Government that emerges after the 7th May. And the political stakes are huge with no guarantee of either.

In many ways, most of Osborne’s dreams have been realised as the parliament draws to a close, formally ending on the 30th May. The economic recovery is well underway, wages are rising and individuals and businesses are both feeling more confident about the future than at any point in the last five years. If Bill Clinton was right when he said that the biggest election issues was ‘the economy, stupid’, then it should be plain sailing for Osborne and the Conservatives.

The fact that it isn’t, suggests that his party will be looking to Osborne to make the difference when he delivers the Budget on Wednesday. The Long Term Economic Plan or #LTEP on Twitter will be the political script. ‘Plan A’ has worked (sort of). ‘Let us finish the job’. ‘Competence or Chaos’ TM etc etc. But as the BBC’s David Cowling put it at a recent UCL seminar the two most important questions in the election are 1) is the economy improving? and 2) is it improving for me?

Osborne’s job this week is to martial the economic evidence to answer the first question and offer a bevy of announcements to persuade more people to believe the second. Ideally they need to be persuaded in Ashcroft’s marginals rather than in the traditional Conservative heartlands. Expect name checks for towns and cities in the Midlands and the North and populist as well as longer term measures for their benefit.

This is where Labour are hoping that he fails to finish the job. In their favour, Osborne’s Budgets haven’t always been a roaring success – there was the pasty tax ‘omnishambles’ of 2012 for a start. But he’s become steadier on his feet and less shrill in tone ever since. The Treasury is also happier as he’s stuck to his austerity script and to tough choices. The Budgets have become progressively more Brown like (and Treasury like) with a renewed interest in the longer term and in structural issues like productivity, investment, human capital (the ‘Five Drivers of Productivity’ anyone?)

The Treasury Permanent Secretary, Sir Nick Macpherson warned on Friday that he might call in the police if any budget announcements were leaked. And yet there was George on the Marr Show on Sunday, promising not to reveal his Budget, while sneaking out stories on annuities and on business rate reforms over the next 24 hours. But I doubt that Macpherson has called Scotland Yard, given that the Budget now takes place over the entire week; Saturday and Sunday for key soundbites and narrative, a few trails on growth forecasts and some key policy announcements on Monday and Tuesday (see Annuities, Business Rates Review, Apprenticeship pay and Minimum Wage rises), the speech set piece on Wednesday and then the Departmental announcements and visits in a hard hat for Thursday and Friday, accompanied by press reaction and detailed briefings (including reaction from IFS and other leading economic commentators).

So what might Osborne announce? He’ll want the OBR to give him some decent numbers in their forecasts and increased tax receipts to give him some spending flexibility. It looks like both will happen and these fit his and Lynton Crosby’s #LTEP script. Both may allow him to reveal a big ticket commitment on income tax thresholds or tax cuts elsewhere. A commitment on Inheritance Tax would replay his 2007 Party Conference speech that transformed Conservatives polling and led to Gordon Brown’s postponing of his planned snap election that Autumn. However the Tories may want to save that promise for a manifesto free of Lib Dem influence. Further raises in income tax thresholds for the low paid will be more coalition friendly and could provide the big headline or the final ‘rabbit’ of this Parliament.

But despite his promise of no giveaways and gimmicks, there almost certainly will be. He’ll find it hard to avoid either when thinking about how he might please pensioners and the low paid. The Treasury has always liked beer and wine (especially British) and we might see a cut in duty on both. A commitment to more house building? Perhaps even something for the motorist? Dare Osborne try a Top Gear line or will he prefer a kitchen gag?

Of more interest to universities and cities and regions beyond London, may be the already rehearsed lines on a ‘truly national recovery’ and supporting science:

‘…this Budget is all about securing a truly national recovery – from building a Northern power house, connecting up other regions of our country, committing to long-term plans that support science and high speed transport, making sure that all parts of our country feel the benefits of the economic recovery, and that’s what this Budget will be. So no giveaways, no gimmicks, a Budget for the long-term.’
Osborne on Andrew Marr Show, BBC1 Sunday 15th March 2015

So we can expect more science and more on the North – HS3? New deals for science and devolution in Leeds and Liverpool? Confirmation of deals in Manchester? New announcements for Birmingham and Nottingham? A Midlands ‘powerhouse’ perhaps? Although economically, Birmingham in particular is more connected to London and the Greater South East than to the Northern Cities. But good as this all undoubtedly is, Osborne has to appeal as much to the kitchens of Coronation St as to the universities and scientists of the North.

At the recent HE hustings organised by THE, HEPI, Universities UK and the Open University, Greg Clark promised additional support for part time students with a ‘watch this space’ answer. With Labour’s recent pledge to increase grants and student support, we might see something there too as Osborne won’t want to see Miliband’s announcement go unchallenged. He has after all championed higher education and the increase in full time numbers. More science and health announcements (or re announcements) are likely, given that there is a bit of slack left in the science capital coffers.

But his main message will be that his ongoing stewardship of the economy (with perhaps a little nod to Danny Alexander) allows him to ‘share the proceeds of growth’ just a little more. So while he’ll still look to grab some headlines with further swingeing cuts to Welfare and to non protected government spending, Osborne will also claim that generous economic forecasts allow him to increase earnings thresholds for the lowest paid, increase apprenticeship pay and the minimum wage and offer a few quid here and there for drinkers, drivers, builders, scientists and pensioners. That’s a bit more Hammond and May than Clarkson and definitely more Weatherfield than Chipping Norton.

Some say… it’s George Osborne’s appeal to this mix of interests that will carry the Conservatives through the General Election and back into power.

New Job(s)

I’m now a few weeks and months into my new academic life. I’ve been teaching at Winchester since last September and in February I left GuildHE after 4.5 years and started work at Manchester University. I studied there in the 1980s (English and History since you ask) and graduated 25 years ago.

It’s an interesting combination. I’m enjoying both jobs and being part of two great institutions. I’ll be updating this blog with my experiences in the classroom and the boardroom and how I’m getting on in both. And I’ll still be writing about education policy and politics too. I hope it’s occasionally useful or interesting…