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Malcolm McLean: Politics, promises and U-turns

This election campaign has shown how important the public sees issues such as the state pension and long-term care

We have been here before, haven’t we? Is a political U-turn an admission of failure or is it a sign of strength in having the courage to admit something is not going to work and needs to be put right?

I can see both sides of the argument. But for Prime Minister Theresa May to suggest last month that what appeared to be a belated introduction of a cap on social care costs was merely a “clarification” of a statement (to the contrary) in her manifesto four days earlier is almost certainly pushing it too far.

Manifestos are not supposed to unravel within days of being issued. They are a public declaration of the party’s policies for the next parliamentary term, which, in the days of fixed period parliaments, could mean the next five years.

Where this often goes wrong, of course, is where rash promises are made in the heat and fury of an election campaign for no other reason than to secure votes. And chickens do come home to roost.

For example, you have to question the wisdom of David Cameron’s promise at the last general election that there would be no increase in income tax, National Insurance or VAT for the full duration of the next parliament. This may or may not have helped him secure a working majority in parliament but it created a problem for the future Chancellor.

The financial planners’ guide to the election

Indeed, it led to the debacle of Philip Hammond having to make a hasty U-turn (no argument about describing it as such) on plans he had announced in his first Budget earlier this year to increase NI contributions for self-employed workers.

This was construed to be a contravention of the manifesto. Perhaps having learned the lesson, it is noticeable that the same promise is not being carried forward into the next parliament in the latest Conservative manifesto.

And what about Labour? Will they not find it impossible to cope with the very expensive undertakings they have given in their manifesto should they come into power? Some notable examples include freezing the state pension age at 66, maintaining the triple lock, continuing all pensioner benefits, paying for social care and scrapping tuition fees. How many U-turns might arise from all of that?

Labour has also been very critical of the Conservatives’ proposal to means-test the winter fuel payment, seemingly overlooking the fact they themselves proposed to withdraw the payment for “better-off” pensioners as recently as the last election.

The Liberal Democrats, who also want to take the winter fuel payment away from higher rate taxpaying pensioners, seem to have avoided any suggestion of U-turns so far in this campaign.

That said, they still carry the stigma of former leader Nick Clegg going back on his promise to scrap tuition fees in the 2010 election campaign.

Whether we are going to see any more significant “clarifications” of policy initiatives in the remaining days of this campaign and beyond remains to be seen.

But what was supposed to be an election almost exclusively about Brexit has, perhaps not unsurprisingly, shown the relevance and importance of more home-grown social policy issues – especially in relation to the state pension and the continuing problem of who funds long-term care for an increasingly ageing population.

Politicians are only human and, like the rest of us, will sometimes get things wrong. But they should not over-promise what they cannot deliver and they should acknowledge their mistakes when they realise they have made them, try to put them right and move on. They may or may not get punished at the ballot box but that is how it works in a democracy and they will have to accept the result.

Malcolm McLean is senior consultant Barnett Waddingham                                                                                 

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