Manifestos are out from two more parties, neither of which had any seats in the last Parliament. One was from UKIP, offering a combination of policies designed to appeal to readers of the Daily Express: lock up criminals, support for “beleaguered” drivers and self-employed people, get rid of foreign aid, more police, criminalise breast ironing (I didn’t know what that was, either), stop funding devolution and how dare anyone say we’re little Englanders? The other was from the Women’s Equality Party, whose eight point plan for a ‘caring economy” is presented as “challenging the myth that social justice and equality are somehow separate from our economy.” They want equal pay, universal child care, integrated health and social care, more accountability for inequality and lots of policy reviews. It all seemed well-reasoned and very sane, but maybe that’s because I read it immediately after the UKIP one.
While the Green Party manifesto is not likely to make much of a contribution to British government in practice, there are two big things to say in its favour. In the first place, it’s mercifully concise. Second, it doesn’t just give us a shopping list of policies: it starts off each section with a statement about general direction and principle. A manifesto isn’t just a list of policies: voters want to know, and are entitled to know, how a prospective government would go about judging and making decisions on the matters it doesn’t yet know about. That, realistically, covers far more decisions than any manifesto could possibly anticipate, and that’s what the Greens are telling us. Other parties take note.
There’s a commitment to a greener economy, but I think we’re supposed already to know what that means. The specific policies on ‘the economy’ are mainly concerned with tax and benefits (the foundations of a Basic Income), but the manifesto doesn’t have much to say about how the economy works or how it will change. Apart from membership of the EU, the main commitments are to public services in health, housing and education, public engagement, environmental protection, human rights and ethical foreign policy – mostly policies that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Labour party manifesto in the days before Blair.
The Liberal Democrat’s manifesto is out. It has the shape and feel of a traditional manifesto, laid out in nine sections, with a shopping list of policies in each. The sections cover Europe, health and social care, education, the economy, families and communities, green policies, international policies, rights and (of course) constitutional reform. Housing policies are buried in family and community, but include the significant, and welcome, aim of expanding house building capacity to 300,000 a year. Benefits are also part of family and community. Most of the measures, as in the Labour manifesto, are about trying to repair recent damage: reversing cuts to Universal Credit and ESA, unfreezing benefits, abandoning the two-child policy, restoring Housing Benefit and JSA to 18-21 year olds, and of course the bedroom tax. Among new policies are to separate out employment support from benefits (a good idea) and withdrawing the Winter Fuel Payment from people with higher incomes (a bad one – they should have learned from the fiasco with Child Benefit). Possibly the most depressing line is that they will “ensure that those using food banks are aware of their rights”. Food banks are here to stay, then.
The official release of the manifesto has been supplemented by outline costings, identifying, in terms similar to a budget, both expectations of tax revenue and projected expenditure. (I made a general comment about the Labour manifesto last week. I had initially thought to write only one comment as each of the manifestos came out, but I’m not the BBC and I have no duty to offer equal time to all participants. Labour deserve points at least for turning the election campaign to thoughts of policy.)
In relation to tax, most of the money raised is to come from corporation tax, a tax on very high incomes and tax avoidance. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has commented that tax revenues are uncertain, and that people will change behaviour to reduce their tax liability. Those points are certainly true, but the same uncertainties infect Treasury budgets, which in recent years have been increasingly fantastical – thumping great savings on benefits like PIP supposed to materialise out of thin air. The best we can hope for are indicators, and for the most part Labour’s costings are neither unreasonable nor unsound.
The projected expenditure on social security is £4bn, mainly devoted to reversing existing cuts. The main list of measures is this:
increase ESA by £30pw for those in the work-related activity group, scrap bedroom tax, implement the PiP legal ruling, restore Housing Benefit for under 21s, scrap Bereavement Support Payment reforms, £2 billion of additional funding for Universal Credit for review of cuts and how best to reverse them, uprate Carers’ Allowance to the level of JSA
I’ve commented on the timidity of these proposals; it’s not about making benefits better, but stopping them getting even worse. There are seven measures there: five of the seven imply not new commitments, but reversion to former patterns, and the ‘cost’ is based on the removal of intended savings from the Treasury’s plans.
There is one element in the spending proposals which I’m sceptical about: that is the assertion that increasing the minimum wage will come in at zero cost. In terms of the economy overall, there’s good reason to think that increasing the minimum wage generates as much economic activity as it suppresses. In terms of the public sector, however, raising the minimum wage has two more specific effects: it raises the cost of public service employment, because the public services in general and local government in particular are notoriously stingy employers, and it raises the cost of outsourced contracts, because many local authorities have ducked the first problem by engaging external firms which pay even less for essential services.
The second manifesto off the stocks comes from Plaid Cymru. They hope to raise educational standards by paying teachers more, they want more doctors, and the main policy for housing I could see was to improve the situation of armed forces veterans. They suggest that social security powers could be devolved – as indeed they could, because Northern Ireland has had full nominal control for nearly a hundred years. They’re a little less ambitious as to what they might do with the new powers: they’re against private contractors, the bedroom tax and the rape clause, but that’s sketched out in a few words.
There’s no sense, then, that Plaid Cymru believes it can offer a new settlement. They explain: “this election is about an immediate threat to our nation, our economy and our people”, and complain that “People in Wales are facing a tidal wave of attacks from the Conservatives.” They’re stronger on complaining about the inundation than they are on offering measures to deal with it, but in fairness, there aren’t enough buckets to cope.
Policies matter. In the absence of the political manifestos, the election campaign to date has been reduced to either a focus on personalities, or on a generalised sense of trust. Neither of those can be relied on. People who voted in 2015 in the belief that they were choosing between David Cameron or Ed Miliband – or, for that matter, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage – were wrong to think that. In formal terms, the party leaders aren’t on the ballot papers; the names of prospective local MPs are, with their party (and the party might change afterwards). In practice, the party leaders aren’t what matters – those parties are. And that’s why there didn’t need to be an election after all of those party leaders had resigned.
By contrast, the policies announced in manifestos have a serious impact. The reason why pensions have continued to increase was because the winning party manifesto had promised it. The reason why the government had to change its mind about National Insurance contributions wasn’t because they’d had a change of heart; it was because the policy contradicted their manifesto. And one of the key reasons why the Liberal Democrats suffered so heavily at the polls in 2015 is that they broke a key manifesto promise. We’ve had, up to now, a phony war on the doorsteps; candidates who are standing for office haven’t really been able to say what their party hopes to do, and that means that they have to bang on instead about character or tribal loyalties. Let’s hope that the belated publication of the first manifesto changes the tone.
I had hoped that by now all the party manifestos would be available for review. It seems that in our new, populist politics that policies don’t really matter that much, and everyone is waiting for a more opportune moment to reveal their plans. The first manifesto off the stocks turns out to be the Labour Party’s, and that’s only because the manifesto has been leaked: I read it via Guido Fawkes’ site. It’s wordy, and there’s a lot of detail on some areas – just not the ones I usually get worked up about.
The main policies on social security are to
- keep the triple lock on pensions
- ‘review’ pension age
- ‘review’ the two child policy
- scrap sanctions
- reverse a series of cuts, such as the bedroom tax and recent cuts to ESA
- replace assessments with a “personalised, holistic assessment process”, and
- restore Universal Credit work allowances.
That looks, then, like a commitment to retain Universal Credit, and indeed most of the current structure of benefits; the biggest commitment is to roll back benefits to how they were five years ago.
On housing, Labour will build more.
On health, the main commitment is to spend more and to cap waiting lists at 18 weeks. For mental health, the main commitment is to spend more proportionally, and to do more about children’s mental health. For social care, care workers will be paid more.
The summary may seem sketchy; so, in my view, are the proposals. There is rather more on transport, business and energy. Nor is there much about general principles, such as liberty, equality, solidarity or democracy. The old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy stuff that excites me is just not what Labour is most concerned with.
According to the Guardian, Labour will tomorrow announce a ‘tough’ new position on Brexit, insisting on the “exact same benefits” for trade and commerce. They won’t get that, because EU negotiators have already made it clear that we can’t have membership of the single market without respecting the four freedoms. Leaving that aside, however, the usual shopping list – trade, security, the economy – misses the point.
There have been demonstrations over the weekend. They’re not about tariffs. They’re about movement, contact, travel, education, work and family life. The loss of European citizenship means that you won’t have the right to live or work across Europe without a permit, to study where you will, or to marry a European with the assurance that you’ll be able to live together. And that directly and immediately affects the lives of millions of people – not just the 4 million already identified by Michel Barnier (that is, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU), but anyone in a mixed family, and anyone who might be. People like me; quite possibly, people like you.
Before the referendum, I tried to flag the issue when it wasn’t on the agenda; since the referendum, I’ve raised petitions on Change.org and in the European Parliament. This is about the right to live in Europe. We were told that right was fundamental, not just to what the European Union was all about, but to us; and for many of us, it is.
Update, 6th April. I didn’t know it when I wrote this, but a legal case on this point has been lodged in the Republic of Ireland by Jolyon Maugham, an English QC. Maugham’s case is largely about the timing and import of the Article 50 notice, and that’s been covered in the press; but the other part is about the legal status of UK citizens as citizens of the European Union. More to come.
Theresa May has described the request for a referendum on Scotland before a final decision about Brexit as a ‘game’. There’s rather more to it than that. If Scotland votes for independence before the exit agreement is concluded it will materially affect the terms on which Scotland could become a member of the European Union. It would make it possible for Scotland’s status to be negotiated as part of the exit agreement; the precedent is the division of Denmark from Greenland, where part of a country left and part continued within the EU. That would also mean, under the terms of Article 50, that Scotland’s status was subject to majority voting rather than unanimous agreement within the Council. (We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for the EU to get the consent of all member states to agreement on the UK’s departure; that’s not actually required by the Article 50 process.) Delaying the timing of the referendum would have the effect of closing down both of those options, and while the situation could be resolved in other ways, a delay now could obstruct Scotland’s consideration for membership for several years.
The date is however a matter of politics, and if May wanted to scuttle Scottish independence, she has another option: which is, to offer an immediate referendum within the next two months, rather than one in 18 months to two years. The precedent is the short period permitted for the Brexit referendum; the Government’s rationale would be that this would clear the ground before the exit negotiations, Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 General Election; but the political calculation would be that a short time span would make it very difficult for the Nationalists to build enough support to win. The longer the delay, the more likely it becomes that the vote will be for independence.
The EU Commission’s White Paper on The Future of Europe was published on 1st March. It covers five scenarios:
- carrying on as things are
- nothing but the single market
- allowing those who want to do more to develop initiatives
- doing less
- strengthening the EU on issues such as trade, foreign policy and defence
It’s striking what this is missing. The problems faced by the EU are crisply stated:
many Europeans consider the Union as either too distant or too interfering in their day-to-day lives. Others question its added-value and ask how Europe improves their standard of living. And for
too many, the EU fell short of their expectations as it struggled with its worst financial, economic and social crisis in post-war history.
If the problem is that people think the EU is remote and irrelevant, then proposals to make it still more remote and less valuable to citizens make no sense at all. In September Juncker was talking about developing a “European Pillar of Social Rights” – but there are only eighteen words about social rights in the White Paper, and those are confined to the world of work. The idea that the EU should be there for its citizens seems to have been forgotten.