‘Reading’ the 2017 manifesto statements in Education and HE policy

Dr Colin McCaig Sheffield Institute of Education

The two main educational headlines from the party manifestos in 2017 are the Conservative’s endorsement of more Grammar Schools, and Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees, re-introduce maintenance grants and write off student debt. They both represent radical breaks from their parties’ recent previous manifesto statements, but neither necessarily break new ground or threaten to lose party support. So how do parties decide what to put in their election manifestos? How should we ‘read’ the story of the 2017 election?

Proximity to power and issue intersection

In manifesto analysis context is everything. Opposing parties, even if we restrict ourselves to those that can feasibly form the next government, are not in equipoise. In this sense analysis of the alternatives, in which equivalent propositions can be contrasted as opposing positionalities on a given issue, has to be informed by an awareness of real and shifting power imbalances (including those internal to a party); analysis of the discourses and choice of policies to promote in manifestos is contingent on parties’ changing proximity to power. One party has power and is either trying to entrench or build on its power; the other party or parties are trying to alter the balance by approaching and hopefully gaining power.

Of course, parties also have to keep their existing supporters onside; there is as limit to the extent that parties can stretch the limits of their ideology to accommodate new agendas or reach out to new voters (Panebianco 1988). Similarly, parties usually have the opportunity to ‘frame’ what they are doing in the context of pre-existing shibboleths (Budge at al 1987). This is particularly true of governing parties.

We can see this in the 2017 Conservative manifesto. Prime Minister Theresa May is openly attempting to increase her majority, rather than just hold off her opponents. To win is not enough; her government is (at the time of writing the manifesto anyway) confident of winning, without trying too hard. The level of detail is often an important indicator. Often when an opposition party is approaching power, for example when long-run polling suggests they have a good chance of winning the election (Conservatives in 1979, Labour in 1997) manifestos have to be more detailed because they were attempting to do two things: 1) persuade the electorate that they understand the issue; and 2) offer an alternative to the tired or venal approaches of the governing party. So they tend to read more zealous, more enthusiastic and more engaged with reform than the government.

By contrast the governing party’s manifesto usually contains statements that can feel merely ‘place holding’, using perfunctory ‘steady as she goes’ statements – after all they have an entire Parliament to incrementally develop policy, and the timing of GEs is not always seen to necessitate a radical reform. The unplanned ‘snap’ election of 2017 is indicative of this; the Higher Education and Research Bill, further entrenching marketised reforms, became an Act only on the final day before dissolution, and it would be odd to expect the Conservatives to be suggesting anything beyond that. Similarly, the March budget signalled additional medium term spending priorities in the Further Education and Skills sector, so we shouldn’t expect any radical departures there either.

Points of intersection are another key indicator of proximity to power. The following table summarises the points of issue intersection (that is, issues mentioned by the three largest parties, not the extent that they agree with eachother).

Table: Issues covered and points of intersection: 2017 Manifestos

Issues/themes Conservatives Labour Lib Dems
Selection in schools Y Y
Technical education at school level Y Y Y
Links between schools and HE Y
‘Good schools’ and ‘standards’ agenda Y Y
Roman Catholic schools Y
Funding issues (schools) Y Y Y
Technical education & Skills (FE & HE levels) Y Y Y
Career learning and retraining Y
National Education Service Y
Early Years/nursery places Y Y
Democratic accountability Y
Class sizes Y
Testing / trusting teacher assessments Y
Mental Health counselling Y Y
Higher Education fees Y Y
Maintenance Grants for students Y
Teachers as an asset Y
Curriculum and pedagogy Y
Stereotyping/bullying/identity issues Y
Widening Participation and fair admissions to HE Y
HE Research and Science budget (Brexit) Y
Total issues cited 8 11 13

As we might expect the governing party highlighted the least amount of issues, while the two main opposition parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) cited the most. Intersections are limited to three areas across all three parties: Funding issues (schools); Technical education at school level; and Technical education & Skills (FE & HE levels) (light shading in the table). Labour and Conservatives had no other intersections by issue covered – however, as we may expect of the two main opposition parties, Labour and the Lib Dems had three additional areas of intersection: Early Years/nursery places; Mental Health counselling; and Higher Education fees (darker shading in the table).

When there are not many areas where both or all three main parties have a specific position vis-à-vis the government, or even engage with the same set of issues, then it is generally a sign that the opposition parties do not expect to form the government. In these cases the opposition parties usually are making bold but not detailed pledges; as with the abolition of HE tuition fees and the introduction of the ‘cradle-to-grave’ National Education Service by Labour, we might say they are making symbolic bold statements of positionality rather than expecting to have to deliver reforms within months.

A settled governing party expecting to win again (for example, the Conservatives in 1987 and 1992; Labour in 2001 and 2005) is relatively rare in British politics; in practice, unstable electoral dynamics change the context and thus the discourse – for example in 1997 election the Conservative manifesto showed signs of reacting to the Labour opposition (which had been ahead in the polls for three years prior to the GE), particularly on standards in schools (mainly in the proxy area of how long miscreants would be excluded from school) as Labour moved into traditional Conservative territory in a (successful) effort to gain the support of ‘aspirational’ parents.

On such occasions there is a sense of movement around consensus; not only are the main parties addressing each other point-by-point (so there is a consensus about what is important), they are often moving closer together on key issues. Hence the Conservatives, after two elections where they were scathing about comprehensivisation (introduced by Labour in 1965), by 1974 the Conservatives began the move towards an acknowledgement that comprehensivisation was popular with the voters, and desisted with their critique at the time of the 1966 and 1970 elections. Even today the issue of selection by ability (a return to Grammar Schools) is divisive within Conservative ranks, and it is only since the ascension of Theresa May to the party leadership that it has re-appeared on the political agenda.

Dr Colin McCaig is a Reader in Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education, with 20 years’ experience in education policy research. Colin’s research interests are in the area of inequalities of access to higher education which he approaches through critical analyses of policies concerning the marketisation of higher education. Comparative analyses of Party manifesto statements 1964-1997 formed part of Colin’s PhD Preparing for Government: Education policymaking in the Labour Party, University of Sheffield.


Budge, I, Robertson, D & Hearl, D (eds) (1987) Ideology, Strategy and Party Change: Spatial Analyses of Post-War Election Programmes in 19 Democracies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Panebianco, A (1988) Political Parties; organisation and power, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge


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