This will be the first of a three-part series undertaken by The Yorker to provide a comprehensive overview of the policy stances of three of the main political parties in the UK: the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. So, if you are still unsure as to who you will be voting for come the 12th of December then you’re in the right place! This particular article will look at Labour’s policy stances on the environment; public services, including the NHS; poverty and inequality; Brexit; international relations.
The Labour Party 2019 manifesto is now available to download in PDF form from their website here, and first things will probably strike you about it are the level of detail, and the time it spends discussing Brexit. Regarding the level of detail, the manifesto itself is 107 pages long, compared to 98 from the Liberal Democrats and just 64 from the Conservatives. Now, of course, this by itself is almost meaningless. But, it does give you a good idea as to the depth each political party chose to go into for explaining how and why they chose to pursue any given policy proposal.
Then regarding Brexit, I personally found it striking that Labour spends only seven pages discussing their Brexit policy, which itself is wedged between various other policy stances, between pages 87 and 93 to be precise. In fact, the word “Brexit” is only mentioned 21 times in the whole manifesto, compared to 61 times in the Conservative manifesto, which is 43 pages shorter. Given this, it’s probably unsurprising to discover that the Conservative manifesto references Brexit explicitly throughout and they relate it to almost every policy stance they have. For a full comparison here the Liberal Democrats do mention “Brexit” 49 times but do only devote five pages to specifically addressing the issue, so they fall somewhere in the middle of the pack, as one would probably expect.
This trend is also further emphasised when you look at the title chosen for each manifesto. Labour’s “It’s time for real change” tagline is the only one that does not explicitly mention Brexit, further illustrating their desire to focus on other policy issues.
Now a cynic would theorise that this could be seen as an attempt to shift the focus of the political debate away from a topic where Labour is perceived as weak by the electorate (i.e Brexit), and towards one where they are much stronger (i.e the NHS). But I will leave it up to the reader to decide on the level of sincerity truly on display here, and I will move swiftly onto the first topic discusses in the manifesto.
Labour has promised to kickstart a “Green Industrial Revolution” that will create jobs, revive various parts of the country and massively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, they will dedicate £400 billion to a National Transformation Fund, of which, £250 billion will be put towards “renewable and low-carbon energy and transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration.” This section in the manifesto does also detail their plans to devolve political power away from Westminster/London and into the Northern regions in particular through methods such as placing their National Transformation Fund Unit there. Of course, the extent to which this will actually alter the balance of power is up for debate but it would definitely be a tentative step in the right direction at least.
£250 billion will also be loaned out to business over the next 10 years with the aim of helping them to “decarbonise our economy.” And as well as this Labour have also promised that if a business is found to be failing to contribute to solving the climate crisis then they will be delisted from the London Stock Exchange, just to make sure that they have both ends of the old carrot and stick approach.
Regarding energy, Labour have pledged to deliver a net-zero-carbon energy system for the UK by some time in the 2030s. This will be done through a mix of wind, solar, nuclear and some tidal power. As well as this, oil companies will be taxed, homes will be made carbon-zero as standard, water and energy companies will be brought into public ownership, and roughly three per cent of GDP will be spent on research and development annually.
The rest of Labour’s climate policies touch on various sectors but do include pledges to introduce a new “Clean Air Act,” provide £5.6 billion in funding for flood defence and response, achieve net-zero-carbon food production in Britain by 2040 and make the NHS a net-zero-carbon service. As well as this there are vague promises to increase recycling, protect Green Belts and invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and roads more generally.
All in all the manifesto sets out a bold plan for the environment, going much further than anyone could have envisaged a few years ago. Now obviously there will be questions raised as to their stance on the nationalisation of the utility companies or the affordability of various other proposals but in general, if you subscribe to the widely held belief that we are facing a climate crisis then this manifesto would undoubtedly be a positive step forward for the United Kingdom in that area.
Public Services and the NHS
Labour have taken a similar approach here as well insofar as they have essentially pledged a spending spree. To this end, £150 billion would be set aside for schools, hospitals, care homes and council houses. Of this, £1.6 billion a year would be devoted to mental health funding in the NHS, and £2 billion would be spent on modernising hospitals.
Addressing the NHS specifically, Labour have said that they will increase expenditure across the health sector by an average of 4.3% every year, halt and reverse any privatization and ensure that the NHS remains “excluded and protected” from any international trade deals. The last part there may not seem too consequential but I can assure you that American private companies are foaming at the mouth over the prospect of gaining access to the NHS. Even more so given the current uncertain nature of our post-Brexit trading relationship with the United States so a strong stance on the NHS there is vital.
Other significant commitments regarding the NHS include abolishing prescription charges; extending the sugar tax to milk drinks; real-term pay rises every year for NHS workers; doubling annual spending on children and adolescent mental health services.
Labour does also address the fact that this will in-part be financed by an increase in income tax for those who earn more than £80,000 a year, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching BBC Question Time recently. However, they have also promised to freeze National Insurance, VAT and income tax for everyone else.
Moving onto schools, Labour have promised 30 hours of free preschool education per week to children aged 2-4, and a reversal of cuts to Sure Start centres. Then for primary schools, as well as increased funding they have also promised to scrap SAT tests for key stage one and two, introduce free school meals for all, and tackle the costs of school uniforms. Finally, Labour would also oversee the abolition of tuition fees and reinstatement of maintenance grants for higher education students. I’m also aware that the last proposal there may bring back distressing memories of Nick Clegg back in 2010, but the proposal is there in the manifesto so on this occasion it would only be fair to judge how sincere it is if Labour do get into power.
Labour’s plans for policing meanwhile centre around plans for investment in more frontline officers, the elimination of institutional biases against people from BAME communities and investment in a youth justice system to deter young people from a life of crime. They also make a very vague statement that they will “review our border controls to make them more effective,” with no detail as to how. Obviously, it’s also unclear as to how successful any changes with a view to eliminating institutional biases would be but again, it is certainly a step in the right direction at least.
Concerning justice, Labour have emphasised their preference for “robust community sentences” over short prison sentences for non-violent and non-sexual offences. They have also pledged to protect legal aid, recruit new lawyers and halt court closures. Furthermore, they have promised to conduct a review into the “shamefully” low rape prosecution rates and reintroduce a Domestic Abuse Bill.
Now the rest of social services (specifically concerning local government, fire and rescue and digital, culture media and sport) tend to have shorter sections so the important parts can be surmised together. To this end, the manifesto states a desire to re-nationalise Royal Mail and bring parts of BT relating to broadband under public ownership as well, as part of their plan to deliver free full-fibre broadband for all by 2030.
Additionally, Labour has promised to protect pubs, libraries and the high street in general, through measures like ensuring libraries have updated computers and WiFi and scrapping ATM fees.
At least 5000 new firefights would also be recruited and Labour would ensure that supporters trusts have a much greater say in the running of professional football clubs.
Overall, again, I know questions have and will be asked about the promises to nationalise areas of BT and the Royal Mail, but the fundamental ideas behind the manifesto are well-intentioned. The general theme of Labour’s section on public services is that they will reverse the cuts of the last nine years of Conservative rule and implement changes that seek to benefit people from every area of society… Except maybe the top 5%. Obviously again there will also be many who will question just how much of this would actually be realised if Labour did get the keys to number ten, but the truth is that there is no real way to know at the moment. Currently, given that they haven’t held office for nine years all we can do is judge them based on what they have promised to deliver, and most of it does seem, well, promising.
No doubt some will also question how this will be afforded, but I should note that the manifesto has been fully costed already. As well as this I would also add that institutions like the NHS, the justice system and the schooling system obviously need more funding. They are in a desperate state and I’m sure plenty of nurses, barristers and teachers will attest to that. It is just a question of exactly how much we, as an electorate, decide we want to spend on them.
Poverty and Inequality
The headline figure from this section is no doubt the £10 an hour that Labour has promised to introduce as a minimum living wage for everyone aged 16 and up. A close second for most consequential policy here would have to be that Labour has pledged to ban zero-hour contracts, and third would probably be that they have also pledged to ban unpaid internships.
In a similar sense, though not exactly the same type of policy, Labour also announced their plans to reduce the working week to 32 hours within the decade. The manifesto states that this would be funded by productivity increases.
The rest of the section on work generally focussed on how Labour would, as one should expect, protect worker’s rights and seek to strengthen the rights of unions across the country. Of course, unions do have a mixed reputation but this really shouldn’t come as a surprise from the Labour Party.
Continuing on to the topic of women, Labour have promised to close the gender pay gap by 2020, increase paid maternity leave from nine to twelve months and classify violence against women and girls as hate crimes. Similarly, Labour also state their wish to look into and close any race-related pay gaps and generally put “an end to all forms of racism and discrimination in our economy and society,” as one would hope, I’m sure.
The next section of the manifesto then addresses migration, an area where Labour has taken heavy criticism from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Particularly of note from this section is that they do not commit to protecting freedom of movement, though they do recognise its “social and economic benefits,” which does seem like a strange compromise that will likely please very few. However, on a more positive note, they do pledge to abolish minimum income requirements for migrants seeking to come here, which is good news if you view migrants in social — rather than purely economic — terms.
Regarding social security, the manifesto details Labour’s plan to abolish Universal Credit, keep the state pension age at 66 and increase Employment and Support Allowance by £30 per week. It is worth noting that Labour as of yet do not have a firm plan as to how they would replace Universal Credit, but they are definitely determined to scrap it. The rest of the section generally discusses Labour’s plans to change the perception of social security away from one of fear to one of safety, through measures like replacing the Department for Work and Pensions with a Department for Social Security, though it is unclear how different the two organisations would truly be.
Finally, the last two sections here cover housing and constitutional issues. Regarding housing, the key figure here is that Labour would introduce a £1 billion Fire Safety Fund to prevent disasters like the one that happened in Grenfell from ever happening again. This could be a key line of attack for Labour given that similar events almost happened again in Bolton very recently, again, under a Tory government. The rest of the section on housing, as one would expect, details their plans to build affordable housing, take private landlords to task and end rough sleeping within five years. Ambitions certainly, but one can also certainly be forgiven for questioning exactly the extent of the proposals that would be achieved in their given time allowance.
Onto constitutional matters, Labour would seek to abolish the House of Lords and replace them with “an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions,” and though the name is impressive I will admit I am far from sure as to what that institution would truly look like. Additionally, they would end the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, introduce automatic voter registration and lower the voting age to 16. And while lowering the voting age is certainly a divisive issue, introducing automatic voter registration really shouldn’t be. Frankly, it amazes me that we haven’t already done it!
In sum, this section may be Labour’s most contentions one so far. I say this because funding towards the environment and further spending on our public services is almost universally seen as a positive policy proposal, but this section has exposed a few more grey areas than other ones. For one, benefits are always a touchy subject, secondly, I’m sure many business owners large and small have reservations about an increase in the minimum wage for 16 year old and a fairly recent YouGov poll found 51% of people are against reducing the voting age to 16. Of course, this is without even mentioning Labour’s ambiguous stance on freedom of movement. Certainly, there are some positives in here for anyone, but there are also a few potential pitfalls for Labour to be aware of.
Speaking of contentious policy stances, we can now move on to Brexit. Luckily though, this one is fairly easy to surmise. In essence, Labour has promised to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement within three months of them taking office and then put it to the people in a second referendum within six months of them taking office. The options on that referendum would be remain and their deal, as Labour have explicitly ruled out a no-deal Brexit which they say would be too harmful to jobs.
I said at the start of the piece that the public perceives Labour as weak on Brexit and this compromise is likely why. It’s easy to see why and how they have reached this compromise, as they don’t want to isolate any voters, but as Brexit has become ever more polarised they have ended up doing just that to the voters on the extremes of either side. I would suggest that a Brexit deal under a Labour government would ensure that we remained closely aligned to the European Union on a variety of issues, but at the same time, it would also ensure that we have no say on any of those issues, and we would likely lose our freedom of movement as well.
I would guess that Labour are hoping that they can tempt Europhile voters with the prospect of a second referendum, thereby positioning themselves as the most realistic option to try and stop Brexit. However, if Labour did get into power and said referendum resulted in the people agreeing to Labour’s deal then I suspect Labour would have a lot of unhappy voters. I would also question just how many of their previous policy proposals would have to change in the event of the public agreeing to their Brexit deal, it would certainly change the social and economic landscape.
Similarly to the last two, this section is far from objectively positive. Now that is not to say it is negative either, simply to say that it deals with more polarising topics, which is probably why it was placed last in the manifesto. The topics to which I am referring are that Labour would immediately recognise the state of Palestine and also renew the Trident nuclear deterrent system.
The topic of Trident and nuclear weapons is an especially interesting one given the fact that before becoming the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn had been a longstanding advocate of getting rid of all nuclear deterrents. It seems that either Corbyn personally has backtracked, or he has been forced into a tactical retreat by other members of his party.
That being said, there are still fairly objectively positive aspects to this section. For one they have promised to immediately suspend the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen and they have also promised to stop aid spending on overseas fossil fuel production. Of course, there are also more neutral proposals such as their commitment to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, which are unlikely to evoke much criticism or praise.
Overall I would say that Labour are unlikely to find many people that wholly agree with their manifesto section on internationalism, but to a certain extent, that should probably be expected. There are fair criticisms to be made here from either side but one way or another on such contentious issues various people were always going to be frustrated. Labour has to hope that people are willing enough to see through there differences here and vote on the basis of the environment, social services and maybe even Brexit on a gambling basis.
I want to preface the conclusion by stating that Labour are very unlikely to receive a majority in the House of Commons come the 12th of December. They are polling far enough behind the Conservatives that some form of coalition is likely their only hope if they wish to receive the keys to Downing Street.
I feel it’s important to note this because their manifesto very much read to me as if they are aware of that fact. They are aware of the fact that they are not in power and are unlikely to receive a majority so they have a certain freedom to promise proposals that they likely would not if they were in power, especially relating to their spending. This idea also works if one accepts that Labour will likely have to compromise in certain areas in order to reach a deal as part of a coalition government. Going big in the manifesto allows them to compromise to a middle ground in certain areas for a coalition, which will be necessary if they get into such a position.
However, with that disclaimer out of the way I do think that it is a bold and progressive manifesto. I think that it addresses a lot of the pertinent issues of the modern world with appropriate solutions. I am particularly impressed by the sections on the environment and social services, as I am sure many others are. On the other hand, I personally do feel let down on areas like Brexit and Trident, as again, I know others do. But to some extent, you have to accept that’s the nature of politics. To be sure, you would be doing very well if you managed to find a political party that you agreed with on every single policy proposal. The key question is, are you prepared to accept the compromised required in order for you to feel comfortable casting your vote for that party?
I will leave that decision to you. But at least having read this you now have a much better idea of what you could be voting for and that is all anyone can ask the members of the electorate for.