Unrealistic and unaffordable: public opinion on the 2024 Conservative and Labour manifestos

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
June 30, 2024, 12:01 PM GMT+0

Most Britons think that parties go back on their manifesto promises anyway

The public has now had a couple of weeks to digest the parties’ manifestos. YouGov has already shown the level of support for individual manifesto policies, but what do people think of the manifestos more broadly?

Britons tend to think Tory and Labour election promises are unaffordable and unrealistic

The IFS has criticised the Labour and Conservative parties for failing to show how they are going to pay for their election promises.

The public have a similar suspicion. Most Britons consider the Tories’ campaign promises to be unaffordable (57%), and about half say the same of Labour’s (47%). Similar numbers again brand both parties’ plans as “unrealistic”: 62% for the Conservatives and 47% for Labour.

Aside from considering Tory proposals to be unrealistic and unaffordable, the public also believe they would be bad for Britain (52%) – only 22% think they would be good for country.

By contrast, they are divided on Labour’s plans: 37% think they would be good for the nation, while 35% think they would not be.

How does opinion compare to previous elections?

In their book on the 2017 general election, academics Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh noted that “Few general election manifestos are remembered. Even fewer make much difference.” The 2017 general election seemed to be an exception to that rule. The Conservatives’ social care policy went down extraordinarily poorly, prompting a shift in the media narrative against the party and a sharp slump in their popularity.

The Labour manifesto by contrast was received extremely favourably by many in the party at the time. As per Cowley and Kavanagh: “the manifesto was also extremely popular among party supporters and campaigners; candidates and local organisers talked of how the policies had energised party workers and had given them something to offer voters.”

Our own polling after the election showed that 28% of 2017 Labour voters said that the main reason they voted for the party was because of the manifesto and party policies, making it the most common motivation.

What questions we can compare from 2017 suggest that similar numbers of Labour voters today think that the party’s manifesto policies are affordable (50%) as did in 2019 (51%) and 2017 (also 51%).

While the overwhelming majority of Labour voters see the party's platform as "good for Britain" (76%), this is slightly lower than in 2019 (83%). They are, however, slightly more likely to see it as realistic (60% now, vs 55% in 2019).

Many more Labour voters thought manifestos under Corbyn had lots of policies (78% in 2017 and 74% in 2019) than do so under Starmer (52%). It is of course debateable as to what extent a manifesto having lots of policies is a positive attribute: by contrast, whether or not those policies come across as well thought though is a more obvious measure of approval.

On this count, the 2017 manifesto scores more highly among Labour voters than the 2024 offering. Two thirds (68%) think the party’s policies were well thought out in 2017, compared to 59% this year – about the same number who did so in 2019 (58%).

Among the wider public, 28% think the policies in both the 2017 and 2024 manifestos were well thought through, with fewer saying so of the 2019 document (20%).

In line with their dramatically reduced popularity, fewer Britons see the Conservative party’s promises in favourable terms. Just 15% think they are well thought through, compared to 27% in 2019 under Boris Johnson and 21% in 2019 under Theresa May.

Conservative voters are also noticeably more sceptical that the party’s plans are achievable and affordable. Whereas three quarters (73-74%) had felt they were ahead of the 2019 election, for the 2024 election this figure has fallen to 57% in terms of being realistic and 50% in terms of being affordable.

Most people don’t think parties keep their manifesto promises anyway

There is widespread public cynicism about parties keeping to their election pledges. Just one in five (20%) believe that winning parties generally keep to all or most of their manifesto promises.

Fully half of Britons (53%) think that parties go back on most of their promises, and 22% believe they go back on all or almost all of their pledges.

Are these expectations at odds with reality? Analysis by the Institute for Government showed that the Tories failed to keep to most of their main promises from the 2017 manifesto; conversely they had achieved most of their key pledges from the 2015 manifesto. Separate analysis from the Guardian suggested likewise that the Tories had delivered most of the main commitments from their 2010 manifesto.

With the 2019 Parliament having only recently drawn to a close no equivalent analysis exists, although a 2021 study by the IfG found that half way through the parliamentary term the Tories had met or were on track to meet the majority of their pledges.

See the full results here

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Photo: Getty