The Political Manifestos and their Impacts on Investors

Here are some comments on the manifestos of the major political parties, now that they are all available. I cover specifically how they might affect investors, the impact of tax changes and the general economic impacts. However most readers will probably have already realised that political manifestos are about bribes to the electorate, or to put it more politely, attempts to meet their concerns and aspirations. However in this particular election, spending commitments certainly seem to be some of the most aggressive ever seen.

Labour Party: I won’t spend a lot of time on this one as most readers of this blog will have already realised that financially it is very negative for the UK economy and for investors. It’s introduced with the headline “It’s time for real change”, but that actually seems to be more a change to revert to 1960s socialism than changes to improve society as a whole. It includes extensive renationalisation of water/energy utility companies and Royal Mail, part nationalisation of BT Group and confiscating 10% of public company shares to give to employees. It also commits to wholesale intervention in the economy by creating a £400 billion “National Transformation Fund”. That appears to include a commitment to revive declining industries, i.e. bail-outs of steel making companies one presumes.  It includes promises to invest in three new electric battery gigafactories and four metal reprocessing plants for steel and a new plastics remanufacturing industry “thus creating thousands of jobs”. This is very much old school socialism which expected that direct intervention in the economy could create new industries and new jobs, but it never really worked as Governments are inept at identifying where money should best be invested. Companies can do that because they have a keen interest in the return that will be made while civil servants do not.

The best comment on the BT proposals was in a letter to the FT by the former head of regulator OFTEL Sir Bryan Carsberg. He said his memory was clear about the shortcomings of BT before privatisation even if many other people do not remember. The lack of competition meant that the company had no incentive to improve efficiency or take advantage of new technological developments. Monopolies are always poor performers in essence.

Trade union law will have the clock turned back with a new Ministry of Employment Rights established. Incredibly there is a commitment to “introducing a legal right to collective consultation on the implementation of new technology in workplaces”. Clearly there are some Luddites in the Labour Party. The more one reads their manifesto, the more it reminds you of years gone by. This writer is old enough to remember the Harold Wilson speech on the “white heat of a scientific revolution” by which he intended to revitalise the UK economy. It only partly happened and at enormous cost. In the same speech he also said that there was “no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party” but that has changed apparently. The manifesto includes a very clear commitment to “rewrite the rules of the economy”. A rise in the minimum wage might also damage companies.

The cost of financing all the commitments is truly enormous, and that is not even taking account of the £58 billion just promised to restore pension commitments lost to some women due to rises in their pension age which is not in the manifesto. Taxes will need to rise substantially to finance all the commitments – that means increases in corporation tax which may damage business, and rises in capital gains tax to equalise it with income tax plus higher rates of income tax for high earners.

But the real damage to UK investors will be the wholesale intervention in the economy in the attempt to create a socialist paradise. And I have not even covered the confusion and contradictions in Labour’s Brexit policy which is downplayed in their manifesto.

Conservative Party: The other main parties are all focusing on Brexit so the Conservative’s title headline in their manifesto is “Get Brexit Done – Unleash Britain’s Potential”.  In comparison with the other parties it is relatively fiscally conservative with no major changes to taxation but some commitments on spending.

Many of their commitments, such as on longer-term social care funding, are subject to consultation but there are some short term increases in that, and for education, for the Police and for the NHS.

Immigration will be restricted by introducing an Australian-style points-based system. This might impose extra costs on some sectors of the economy, but may result in more investment in education/training and more capital investment. This might well increase productivity which is a major problem in the UK.

There is a commitment to invest £100 billion in additional infrastructure such as roads and rail. That includes £28.8 billion on strategic and local roads and £1 billion on a fast-charging network for electric vehicles. Compare that though with the cost of £81 billion now forecast in the manifesto for HS2 a decision on which is left to the Oakervee review.

It is proposed to “review and reform” entrepreneurs tax relief as it is not apparently meeting objectives. There will be further clampdowns on tax evasion and implementation of a Digital Services Tax already planned for 2020.

Reforms are planned to insolvency rules and the audit regime which must be welcomed, but details of what is planned are minimal. They also plan to “improve incentives to attack the problem of excessive executive pay and rewards for failure”. It will be interesting to see how that is going to be done in reality.

There is a plan to create a new independent “Office for Environmental Protection” which will introduce legal targets including for air pollution. This could be very expensive for both companies and individuals. The Government has already committed to a “net zero” carbon target by 2050 but Cambridge Professor Michael Kelly has said that the cost of decarbonising the economy has been grossly underestimated. He has suggested the cost should run into trillions of pounds. But again there are few details in the manifesto on how these commitments will be implemented in practice. Nobody really knows what is the real cost of such a policy.

There are though firm commitments to review the Fixed Term Parliament Act, to retain the “first past the post” voting system, to improve voter identification and reduce fraud, and to avoid Judicial Reviews being used to undermine political democracy. They also commit to review the workings of Parliament – this might lead to a written constitution which this writer thinks is sorely needed to avoid a repeat of recent events which led to gridlock in Parliament and allegedly partisan decisions by both the Speaker and the Supreme Court.

With promises not to increase income tax, VAT or National Insurance (a “triple-tax lock” in addition to the expensive triple lock on pensions which will be retained) this is generally a positive manifesto for most investors and apart from the issues mentioned above should be positive for the economy. A Conservative Government might also restore confidence in overseas investors which may well account for the recent pick-up in the stock market indices as the Conservatives look like they are heading for a significant majority. Such an outcome will also remove some of the uncertainty, if not all, over Brexit which will give more confidence to UK businesses to invest in the future.

In summary the Conservative manifesto is likely to please many and displease few (apart from those opposed to Brexit) so it could be seen as a “safe bet” to avoid any last-minute popularity reversal as happened at the last general election.

The minority parties are losing votes in the polls as they always do when a general election looms and the public realise that there are only two likely candidates for Prime Minister – in this case Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Is that a question of whom the public trusts? This was an issue raised in one of the recent panel debates but I think nobody trusts any politicians nowadays. It is more a question of whom the voters personally like as regrettably hardly anyone reads the manifestos.

But here’s a brief view of the minority parties’ platforms:

Brexit Party: Their manifesto (or “Contract with the People” as they prefer to call it), is definitely sketchy in comparison with the two main parties and is many fewer pages in length. They want, unsurprisingly, a “clean-break Brexit”, and they want a “political revolution” to reform the voting system.

They would raise £200 billion to invest in regional regeneration, the support of key sectors of the economy, the young, the High Street and families. Note the traditionally socialist commitment to support “strategic industries”. The £200 billion would be raised by scrapping HS2, saving the EU contribution, recovering money from the EIB and cutting the foreign aid budget, although I am not sure that adds up to £200 billion.

They would scrap Inheritance Tax and scrap interest on student loans and cut VAT on domestic fuel which will all be quite significant costs. They also promise more investment in the NHS but so do all the other parties – at least there is a consensus on that point.

The Liberal Democrat Party:  They have clearly decided their vote winning approach will be a commitment to stop Brexit, i.e. revoke Article 50. They have a strong endorsement of “green” policies and propose a new tax on “frequent-flyers”. That might include Jo Swinson herself it seems as she has taken 77 flights in 18 months according to the Daily Mail.

Two unusual commitments are to legalise cannabis and freeze all train fares (rather like the freeze in London on bus and Underground fares which has resulted in a £1 billion deficit in TfL finances, but even more expensive no doubt).

Corporation Tax would revert to 20% and Capital Gains tax will be unified with income tax with no separate allowances so private investors would certainly be hit.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) are focusing on another referendum for an independent Scotland as usual, an unrealistic proposition as no other party is supporting that and it would be make Scotland much poorer, plus a ragbag of populist commitments. They clearly oppose Brexit.  As most readers will not find an SNP candidate standing in their local constituency I shall say no more on the subject. You can also go and read their manifesto on the web where it is easy to find all the party manifestos. Likewise for the Welsh and Irish leaning parties.

In summary, this election is somewhat of a no-brainer for investors unless they feel that the Boris Johnson version of Brexit is going to be very damaging for the UK economy, in which case they have a simple choice – vote LibDem or SNP as Labour’s position is too confusing. Alternatively they can play at “tactical voting” to get the party they want info power. There is more than one tactical voting web site to advise you which is the best alternative option but be wary – they seem to be run by organisations with a preconceived preference.

If readers consider I have missed out anything important from this analysis, please let me know.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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