In the last 4 weeks before the elections, the pace starts to hot up. The main political parties all publish their manifestos. These are important in understanding the future plans of the parties, not because they constitute binding commitments to take certain actions or avoid acting in certain areas, but because they are the parties getting their excuses in first. The manifestos spell out the policy focusses of the parties, and if something isn’t in a manifesto, it provides an excuse for inaction in that area. As an example, if you look back to 2010, both the Conservatives and Lib Dems committed that there would be no runway expansion at Heathrow, and sure enough, this commitment both made its way into the Coalition Agreement, and was one of the first transport policy announcements of the Coalition.
This time around, due to the likelihood of a hung Parliament, it becomes important not just to read and understand the manifesto commitments of Labour and Conservative, but also to see those of both the Lib Dems and the SNP, either of whom could potentially be Kingmakers in any coalition created after the general election.
Whilst the documents are glossy, they are also long (both Labour and Conservative run to more than 80 pages, whilst the Lib Dems weigh in at a massive 160 pages), and are sometimes couched in fairly vague language. Leisure, transport and tourism are also not high priorities in determining how people vote, so the commitments around these areas tend to be secondary within the manifestos. Indeed, the only mention of tourism in the Labour manifesto is way down on page 56, in a strange context: We will support the work of the Natural Capital Committee to protect and improve wildlife habitats and green spaces, and make them an important part of our thriving tourism industry. At least the Conservative manifesto contains a complete section devoted to tourism, even if their commitments are not hugely meaningful – of which, more below.
For me, the topics which really matter most to the travel and tourism industry in the election are:
- Air Passenger Duty
- Airport capacity
- Transport infrastructure
- Consumer protection – a topic which is entirely left out of all the manifestos
- Border control – or in particular, whether the parties’ rhetoric on immigration makes it more difficult for tourists to get into or away from the UK.
Putting to one side for a minute any concerns about which party is going to deliver the stronger economy – not a topic where I want to start expressing party political views, most travel businesses also have at least a passing interest in both the subject of business rates and in the issue of minimum wage levels.
So what can we expect on these topics if we are to believe the manifestos? The first thing to bear in mind is that if you have low expectations, you are less likely to be disappointed with the manifesto contents – and luckily, my expectations were at rock bottom!
Air Passenger Duty. This topic fails to get any mention at all in the Conservative or Labour manifestos, and simply a passing mention by the Lib Dems, who comment in relation to Wales that “We will consider the work of the Government’s review on devolution of Air Passenger Duty (APD), with a view to devolving long-haul APD.” At least the SNP are specific – “(we will) Press for the early devolution of Air Passenger Duty to boost our tourism sector.”
The message is clear, none of the parties want to make any long term commitments to sacrifice the £3 billion annual tax revenues they expect to make from APD. Indeed, Labour implicitly go further, and there is an implication that we may see higher levels of APD, or possibly some other form of aviation tax, to cover the enhanced cost of border controls – “We will recruit an additional 1,000 borders staff, paid for by a small charge on non-visa visitors to the UK”.
As you might expect, the Green party are more explicit, and want to introduce significant new taxes on aviation, by making aviation subject to fuel duties and VAT, and if this is not allowed by international law, they would introduce a flight tax based on distance and aircraft type which raised the same amount.
Airport capacity. The Coalition established the Airports Commission with the intention of reviewing future airport capacity needs, and ensured that its outputs would not be published until after the 2015 General Election, enabling all the parties to put on hold further political controversy on this topic. You would therefore hope that the parties would have committed to implement the recommendations of the Commission. Sadly, this is not the case. All the 3 major parties have committed to do little more than consider the recommendations, albeit couched in quite different language. Labour have said that they will make a “swift decision”, although the Lib Dems have said that whilst they will “carefully consider” the recommendations, they remain opposed to any expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, and will not support any net increases in runways in the UK.
So, as feared, it looks like the airport capacity debate will continue to be characterised by delay and indecision.
Transport infrastructure. Interestingly, all the parties recognise that there is a need to improve transport infrastructure in the UK. All the parties make commitments to improving the rail network and extending electrification, as well as improving road networks. The Conservatives include lists of roads which will be improved, and link some of that work specifically to tourism.
Tourism itself gets limited mentions within the manifestos. As stated above, there is only a passing reference, in the context of wildlife habitats in the Labour manifesto. At least both the Conservatives and Lib Dems acknowledge the importance of tourism to the economy, with the Lib Dems making specific commitments in relation to strengthening tourism within the remit of DCMS.
Border control as expected is an important feature of all the manifestos. More exit controls seem inevitable, as this is supported by all the main parties. On the basis that most of the delays in movement through the UK border, whether airports, sea ports or the Tunnel are created by government action, whether security or immigration, we can only expect that the manifesto commitments will lead to more inconvenience for international travellers, a topic which is not addressed at all by any party. The Lib Dems do at least include a manifesto commitment to ensure that tourist visas, amongst others, are processed quickly and efficiently.
The other feature of the party manifestos which is of longer term interest to the travel industry is the growing presence of the environmental agenda. As you would expect the Green Party manifesto is largely based on this issue. However, the Lib Dems also major on this topic, and their environmental policies appear at the moment to be non negotiable in any coalition – although whether in practice that would happen remains to be seen.
So, are we any the wiser or any better off now we know what the parties are committing to within their manifestos? I think that the tourism (and aviation) industry will feel that once again, we can expect little from whoever is in power following the general election, and that we will need to continue to fight hard and shout loudly to achieve anything. But that is nothing new, and a united front will continue to be essential for our industry.