What the Liberal Democrats stand for: A deep-dive into their 2019 Election Manifesto

Image via Aimee Challenor on Wikimedia Commons

The final segment of The Yorker’s pre-election coverage is finally here, this time on the Liberal Democrat 2019 election manifesto. So, if you’re unsure as to what the Liberal Democrats stand for aside from stopping Brexit then read on to find out. Because with the election happening tomorrow there has never been a more important time to make sure you are as informed as possible before you cast your ballot.

First Impressions

As one would possibly expect, the manifesto seems in style to be somewhere in between the Tory manifesto and the Labour one. I say this insofar as there is an obvious focus on Brexit still, given that the manifesto title is “Stop Brexit and Build a Brighter Future,” yet there is still a clear and comprehensible structure. The manifesto is split into nine clear sections, spread out over 98 pages, which mention the word Brexit 49 times.

The sections themselves deal with issues such as the economy, schools, the environment, social services and political reform, and the headlines for each section start with “Our Plan for,” which is all fairly traditional and normal for a manifesto.

It is worth noting though that the exception to this rule is the first section which deals with Brexit, where the headline there is simply listed as “Stop Brexit.” So say what you will about the Liberal Democrats, there is certainly no ambiguity here about where they stand regarding Brexit.

That being said, this manifesto is actually much easier to surmise than either of the previous ones. This is as the beginning of each section has a list of a few bullet points which detail their “priorities in the next parliament,” which in this article will be repeated as headline figures. They effectively serve as a summary of each section, but, rest assured, I will give a much more detailed overview combined with those points.

Stop Brexit

This section is short, yet controversial. This is because if the Liberal Democrats won a majority on Thursday their first order of business would be to revoke article 50 and cancel the whole Brexit process. The United Kingdom would then resume daily business as part of the EU28 and all would continue as it did pre-2016.

Now the rationale behind this is that if the Liberal Democrats were to be elected into office with a majority, on a platform of stopping Brexit, then this would provide a mandate to stop Brexit. The problem with this idea is that a party can be elected into office with a majority of seats in the House of Commons without achieving 50% of the vote. This would mean that over 50% of people likely would not have voted to revoke article 50. So, with this in mind, the Liberal Democrat’s claims to a mandate seem fundamentally flawed.

It is worth noting that this policy is likely the one that caused The Financial Times to stop just short of endorsing the Liberal Democrats and did give The Economist a moments hesitation before offering their endorsement, which was made in spite of this policy more than anything else.

However, I’m sure that the Liberal Democrats are perfectly aware that the chances of them receiving a majority in the impending election are as good as zero. The ultimate aim of this policy, therefore, is probably to shift the conversation around stopping Brexit.

By this I mean, that just around a year ago a second referendum was seen as an extreme and unrealistic proposition, but now it is widely discussed as a realistic proposal in the mainstream media and has been officially adopted in the 2019 Labour manifesto. So, by shifting to a policy of revoking article 50 the Liberal Democrats have successfully normalised the idea of a second referendum and differentiated themselves from the Labour party at the same time.

Indeed, the reality is that if by some hypothetical Parliamentary arithmetic Jeremy Corbyn ended up becoming Prime Minister — which is a far more realistic scenario than one where Jo Swinson became Prime Minister — and he tabled a motion for a second referendum the Liberal Democrats would undoubtedly support it. In this sense, their policy of revoking article 50 is not contrary to the idea of a second referendum, it is more just a case of a plan A and plan B scenario.

The Economy

The headline figures for this section are the £130 billion promised to be invested in infrastructure, the introduction of “skills wallets” worth £10,000 for each individual, and the introduction of a “wellbeing budget.”

To be clear, the skills wallet would allow any given individual £4,000 at age 25, £3,000 at age 40 and £3,000 at age 55 to be put towards education and training throughout their lives, and the wellbeing budget would ensure that governmental decisions would take into account wellbeing indicators, rather than just economic and fiscal indicators.

Other figures of note in this section include promises to build 300,000 new homes a year, invest £5 billion of new capital into a Green Investment Bank, increase research and development spending to 3% of GDP (which matches Labour’s promise and goes above that of the Tories), create a “start-up allowance” for new businesses, restore Corporation Tax to 20% and invest a £50 billion “remain bonus” into services to try and tackle inequality.

Interestingly in this section, there are promises made to set a “genuine Living Wage” across all sectors but the manifesto does not detail the level at which it will be set, instead saying it will be decided later through an “independent review.” The manifesto also does not promise to eliminate zero-hours contracts, instead pledging to set the minimum wage 20% higher for those on a zero-hours contract in order to compensate for the uncertainty of working hours. However, the manifesto does pledge to support the rights of unions to represent and protect workers.

As well as this, the initial £130 billion of infrastructure investment would be put towards converting the rail network to either electric or hydrogen-based technology by 2035, with continued funding for HS2. Finally, there is a promise to install hyper-fast, fibre-optic broadband across the UK, but there is no stated deadline for this to be completed, aside from a target that by 2022 all new homes built will have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband.

In general Liberal Democrat policies on the economy try to strike a balance between the two main parties. To be clear, they reject the nationalisation promoted by Labour, and they similarly reject the low-tax policies of the Conservatives. Instead, the Liberal Democrats prefer to focus on infrastructure spending and re/up-skilling of the population. As well as this the manifesto shows its dedication to human wellbeing quantified beyond economic metrics, which in and of itself is a very interesting proposal that I am surprised has taken so long to become a part of mainstream conversation.

No doubt this manifesto in terms of the economy is nowhere near as radical as Labour’s, but it would certainly bring in more change than the Conservatives. It should be no surprise therefore that the Liberal Democrats have attempted to position themselves as the party of small business and general welfare, with modest taxation combined with various allowances and exceptions where they are deemed necessary/fair.

Education and Skills

The headline figures for this section are that the Liberal Democrats have promised to provide free, high-quality childcare for children of working parents from nine months; reverse school funding cuts; employ 20,000 more teachers; end high-stakes testing as well as school “league tables”.

To be clear here, school league tables would be replaced by a broader range of indicators, the contents of which are unspecified in the manifesto bar that they would assess “wellbeing,” as well as academic attainment.

And for additional detail regarding free childcare, the manifesto states that there would be 35 hours a week for 48 weeks a year of free childcare offered to every child aged two to four, and every child from nine months to 24 months, if their parents or guardians work. £1 billion would also be invested in children’s centres and ‘baby boxes’ would be introduced in England to provide babies and parents with essential items “to help with health and development.”

Interestingly, one of the understated proposals is that the Liberal Democrats would introduce a “curriculum for life” in all state-funded schools that would address topics such as financial literacy, first aid, mental health education, responsible social media use and LGBT+ relationships.

SATs would also be abolished, Ofstead replaced, and the starting salaries for teachers would be raised to £30,000 with a guarantee of a raise of three per cent per year of the next parliament.

Additionally, free school meals would be given to all children in primary education, as well as any children in secondary education whose families receive Universal Credit, and all teaching staff would receive extra training focussed on identifying mental health issues. Though I would note that the fact that children in secondary education would have to be part of a family that receives Universal Credit to qualify for free school means will likely do little to eliminate the stigma around free school means, and Universal Credit itself has been widely criticised as being unfit for purpose, which is why Labour have promised to abolish it entirely.

Finally, free access to national museums and galleries would be protected, safe standing would be introduced in football and the independence of the BBC would be protected. This last point is in stark contrast to the Conservative party of late, which has threatened to abolish the BBC license fee and revoke Channel 4’s public broadcasting license.

In sum, I feel that the Liberal Democrat proposal of a “curriculum for life,” could and should be a very popular idea to be implemented in schools and it has not currently received the attention it deserves. Otherwise, the Liberal Democrats are likely to gain support from young voters with their overarching focus on wellbeing and mental health provision throughout the education system, and there are some genuinely positive steps forward in the manifesto, such as the abolition of high-stakes testing and league tables.

However, I do feel their initial promise of free childcare is misleading given parents have to be working to qualify (and there are no stated guarantees as to how this would work in a single-parent household), and the Liberal Democrats will no doubt also draw criticism for their retention of Universal Credit, which was drawn up in the first place by Conservative politician Ian Duncan Smith. It is worth stating that later in the manifesto they do promise to “reform Universal Credit to be more supportive of the self-employed,” but many will still question if this is enough.

Green Society and Green Economy

The headline figures for this section are that all of Britain’s homes would be insulated by 2030; 80% of British electricity would be generated by renewables by 2030; fracking will be banned for good; 60 million trees would be planted a year; all new cars would be electrified by 2030.

As well as this, fossil fuel subsidies would be ended by 2025, and all new homes and non-domestic buildings would be built to a zero-carbon standard by 2021, rising to an even more ambitious standard by 2025. Non-recyclable, single-use plastics would also be banned and replaced within roughly three years, and deposit return schemes for food and drink bottles and containers would be extended across the UK.

Regarding the environment specifically, at least £18 billion would be set aside over the next five years to “restore the natural environment,” £5 billion would be set aside for flood relief and defence, and as well as protecting and “rewilding” green spaces a “blue belt” would be created to protect marine areas, which would cover at least 50% of UK waters by 2030.

The manifesto also sets a target of a net-zero climate by 2045, which is before the Conservative target of 2050, yet after the Labour target of some time in the 2030s. The fact that this target is sandwiched in the middle of the “green” section and not in the headline figures is probably a result of the fact that it is behind Labour’s target.

Moving on, the manifesto then details the Liberal Democrat plan for transport improvements. Within this, a heavy emphasis is placed on shifting transport from road to rail, and then electrifying important rail lines. Walking and cycling would also be heavily promoted by initiatives like the creation of dedicated safe cycling lanes, but £4.5 billion would also be invested in improving and adding bus routes over the next five years.

Railways fares would be frozen for commuters and season ticket holders for the entire of the next parliament while they “fix our railways.” The ‘fixing’ would mostly be done through investment, electrification and regulation, and though the railways would not be outright nationalised, the bidding process would be opened up to public companies over private operators.

Finally, regarding animal welfare, real fur sales would be banned, stronger penalties for animal cruelty would be implemented and an independent regulatory body would be established to ensure the welfare of racing horses.

On the whole, the Liberal Democrats do seem strong on the environment and climate change. Indeed, in many areas they follow similar, if slightly less ambitious, ideas to the Labour party, such as requiring all companies listed on the UK stock exchange to set targets in line with the Paris climate agreement, which contains the implicit threat that they would be delisted if they failed to do this. Of course, Labour’s manifesto seems to set the bar even higher than this, but the idea is roughly the same.

I would also note that this manifesto does seem to be the strongest on transportation in general. Putting aside one’s views on nationalisation this manifesto does present detailed plans for the future of walking, cycling, buses, cars and railways, with ambitious targets for each. Now there is certainly less focus on job creation in this manifesto than Labour’s, but I would say the action taken to avert a climate catastrophe is certainly comparable.

Health and Social Care

The headlines for this section are that £7 billion would be raised for the NHS and social care by putting a penny on the pound for income tax, mental health would be treated with the same urgency as physical health and the Health and Social Care act would be reformed, as recommended by the NHS.

The penny on the pound income tax increase is a fairly well-established Liberal Democrat proposal and is certainly nothing new in this manifesto. It also represents a more general policy of an honest increase in taxation in order to properly fund and protect our NHS, which is a tradeoff that does seem acceptable to most of the British public.

As well as this, and in line with the rest of the manifesto, there is a clear focus on improvements in the provision of mental health support. In particular, the manifesto pledges to increase access to mental health treatment for all on the NHS and make prescriptions for those with a chronic mental health condition free on the NHS. Additionally, there will be a focus on mental health provision in schools, hospitals (especially after women have given birth), and in the criminal justice system.

As well as this, recognising that gambling can be combined with mental health disorders resulting in tragic outcomes, credit cards would be banned for use in gambling, gambling advertising would be restricted and a levy on gambling companies would be introduced. The funds of this levy would then go to research, education and treatment of the problem. More broadly, every single suicide would be considered preventable and action would be taken to make it easier for people to get the help they need.

Then, more generally relating to the NHS, the manifesto pledges to end the GP shortfall by 2025 and improve the experience of same-sex couples and those in the LGBT+ community in healthcare. Concerning carers, breaks would be guaranteed for unpaid carers, young carers would receive a package of benefits including free bus travel and leisure centre access, and the amount carers would be allowed to earn before losing their allowance would be raised from £123 a week to £150 a week.

Additionally, greater emphasis would be placed on the improvement of public health through the extension of the sugar tax, further regulation on food product labelling, the introduction of a new levy on tobacco companies and a minimum unit price for alcohol, amongst various other proposals.

Then finally, a legal, regulated market for cannabis would be created, abortion would be decriminalized across the UK, with safe zones created outside of clinics to ensure that women could go there without the fear of harassment. These clinics would also be funded such that they could provide their services free of charge to all users.

All in all the Liberal Democrat health and social care section deals with some important and divisive issues, but it does so in a firm and decisive way. Difficult decisions are made, such as ones to raise taxation, fund access to abortion and legalise cannabis, but they are done with no hesitation and with their reasoning clearly stated. Obviously people will disagree on various proposals given their predisposed views and beliefs, but I personally commend them for their firm policy stances.

I also feel that this manifesto provides by far the best response to the mental health crisis we currently find ourselves in, out of any of the main three parties. There is a comprehensive plan to increase funding, access and treatment and the manifesto clearly states the emphasis that this should have.

Fair Society

The headline figures here are that £6 billion would be invested in the benefits system; the wait time for a first benefits payment would be reduced from five weeks to five days; a new principle of universal access to basic services would be introduced; £50 billion would be invested in a Regional Rebalancing Programme.

The principle of universal access to basic services likely needs expanding upon here. The core details of this proposal are that everyone should be able to have a house to sleep in and food to eat. As such a Liberal Democrat government would build many more houses, end rough sleeping and introduce a new legal right to both food and to somewhere safe to sleep.

As well as this, the bedroom tax would be abolished, benefits would be reformed to become incentive — rather than sanction — based, and there would be a target in place to end fuel poverty by 2025 by providing free energy retrofits for low-income homes.

In general, this section states the Liberal Democrat desire to completely reform the benefits system and social security system such they it support people that need them, rather than punishing the most vulnerable and desperate.

The manifesto then moves on to cover support for pensioners, but there is relatively little in this area. The main point of note is that the Triple Lock on pensions would be retained, in line with promises made by all other parties.

Now concerning affordable housing, the manifesto pledges to build 300,000 houses every year, each to a zero-carbon standard, as previously stated. Social housing would also be reformed to follow a Rent to Own model where rent payments would give tenants an increasing stake in the property, owning it outright after 30 years. This would allow those who can’t afford a deposit to work their way onto the housing ladder.

With the same ideas in mind, the Liberal Democrat manifesto goes on to promise to end rough sleeping within five years, matching Labour’s target, but one could argue that this may go even further. I mean this in the sense that under the Liberal Democrat’s universal access to basic services provision, the government would have a legal responsibility to ensure that anyone who was at risk of rough sleeping could have “somewhere safe to stay.” It should also go without saying that the Liberal Democrats would decriminalise rough sleeping by scrapping the Vagrancy Act.

Regarding violence, £1 billion would be invested in community policing and a focus would be placed on identifying and treating the symptoms of youth crime early, rather than dealing with it once young children have committed crimes. To help with this, £500m would also be ringfenced for funding youth services which would be given to local authorities.

Police officers would also receive mental health training, a 2% raise and a promise of future pay rises. Additionally, a new Online Crime Agency would be established and new laws would be put into place to protect women and girls from domestic abuse.

2,000 more prison officers would also be recruited as part of a broader goal to turn prisons into true places of rehabilitation, and as part of that goal shorter periods of jail time would be presumed against, in favour of tough community sentences. Jail time for the possession of drugs for personal use would also be abolished.

Finally, upon release prison-leavers would be provided with suitable accommodation, a bank account, employment or training and they would be registered with a local GP. This is combined with mental health support throughout their entire time in the justice system.

Overall, the Liberal Democrat plans for a fair society are ambitious. Interestingly, they take a different path from Labour in that they look to legislate so that the government has a legal responsibility to ensure certain rights for all people. This should have a certain element of future-proofing, as many of Labour’s changes could be reversed by a future government, yet it would be more difficult to repeal legislation and it would bind any future government’s hands until they were able to repeal it.

Additionally, this section further emphasises the importance of mental health support to the Liberal Democrats. Their proposals for prisoners here are of particular note and could be very effective in lowering re-offending rates when combined with giving prison-leavers the resources needed to have another shot at forging a life from themselves. Policies such as removing the need to declare “irrelevant old and minor convictions” from job applications will no doubt help people who desire another chance at life once they have served their punishment.

Freedom, Rights and Equality

The headlines for this section are that the Liberal Democrats will look to champion the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights, fix the “broken” immigration system and give asylum seekers the right to work three months after they have applied.

Interestingly, this section also details plans to invest £500 million to restore legal aid, which has been slashed under consecutive Conservative governments. Legal aid has often come under hyperbolic attack from the press for lining the pockets of criminals but in reality, the existence of legal aid ensures that everyone, regardless of income, has access to a competent legal defence. This is important as long as we believe in the idea that anyone is innocent until proven guilty. The Conservative manifesto meanwhile, makes no mention of legal aid and the Labour manifesto only makes vague promises around it with no quantitative figures.

Regarding equality, the manifesto pledges to recognise non-binary gender identities, introduce an ‘X’ gender option on passports and include a question on LGBT+ status on the 2021 census. As well as this, more stations would be made wheelchair accessible, British Sign Language would be given full legal recognition and VAT would be removed from sanitary products, which would also be provided for free in schools, hospitals, hostels, shelters, libraries, leisure centres, stadiums, GP surgeries, food banks, colleges and universities.

Statutory paternity leave would also be increased from two to six weeks, and organisations would be required to publish parental leave and pay policies.

Then finally this section of the manifesto covers immigration and asylum reform. Broadly this section looks to prevent illegal entry, take powers away from the Home Office and encourage skilled migration into the country. This would be done by closing seven of the UK’s nine detention centres, thereby making immigration detention an option of last resort. As well as this, policymaking for work permits and student visas would be taken away from the Home Office and given to the Departments for Business and Education respectively. Fees for registering a child as a British citizen would also be reduced from £1,012 to the cost of administration, which I would argue is an objectively positive thing if we want to encourage people to feel as if they are a part of Britain.

Asylum would also be offered to people fleeing their home countries due to the risk of violence owing to their sexual orientation or gender identification. Free, basic English lessons would also be offered to refugees and asylum seekers and public services would be provided to everyone from the moment they entered the country.

In my summary here I should first acknowledge that I have a bias towards liberally minded-policies. As such I find increased funding for legal aid and immigration and asylum reforms to be both very good proposals. However, I would understand if one was to disagree here and one must acknowledge that very few of these policies would be universally popular, not that that should stop parties from doing what they believe to be right.

I have raised these points before in previous articles but to me, this comes down to whether you view migration as a social or an economic idea. If you perceive migration into this country as an equation within which migrants either contribute or take away from our society then these proposals will not be for you. However, if you value the social impact of migrants and wish to afford them the same rights and opportunities as any other human whilst ever they are in this country then these proposals may be for you.

Better Politics

The headlines here are that a Liberal Democrat government would introduce a voting system of proportional representation, lower the voting age to 16, redistribute powers away from Westminster and introduce a written constitution for the United Kingdom.

The fact that the Liberal Democrats want to scrap the first past the post voting system under which we currently operate should not be surprising. This is because they are one of the smaller parties and smaller parties find it very difficult to gain any traction under this system. By this, I mean that a party could receive millions of votes across the country but if none of them are concentrated in a single area then they will not receive a single seat in the House of Commons.

However, beyond functioning as a method to increase their own representation there is some rationale behind this reform. This is because this election has seen massive pushes to encourage tactical voting, where people do not vote for the party they prefer politically, as they feel it would be wasted under the current system. Instead, they vote for the least-worst candidate who has a chance of winning the seat. With this in mind, I would argue that democracy is far more representative when one can freely vote for the party of one’s choice and preference.

Anyway, moving on, the manifesto then covers the Liberal Democrat plans for the decentralisation and devolution of powers away from Westminster and to the regions. Unfortunately, however, there are not a lot of details here. Broadly speaking the manifesto does detail plans to give regions more control over services, funding and decision-making but there are no real specifics.

I would also note that the manifesto does state its desire to create a “written, federal constitution” but it only touches on some aspects of where the constitution could affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I personally would argue that if the United Kingdom was to create a written constitution then it would need a much greater level of debate and scrutiny than seems present in this manifesto. This is said bearing in mind the hundreds of years of legal precedents that currently function fairly well as our uncodified constitution.

Overall this section is mixed. I say this as, unlike most sections, this one seems light on details for potentially very consequential policy changes. However, I do believe that the proposed changes to our electoral system would be beneficial and I, as I’m sure many others do, agree in principle that devolution of power away from Westminster is an objectively good policy, it’s just a matter of exactly how it would be done.

Better World

If you have made it this far then don’t worry, this is the very last section of the manifesto! The headlines here are that a Liberal Democrat government would defend international cooperation against nationalism and isolationism, spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid and control arms exports to countries with poor human rights records.

This section is fairly short but there are some important details here. This includes that sales of arms to Saudi Arabia would be suspended, 2% of GDP would be spent on defence and Palestine would be recognised as an independent state.

It should be noted that there is no mention whatsoever of the Trident nuclear deterrent system, just that a “minimum nuclear deterrent” would be maintained. Of course for such an important issue this does seem unsatisfactorily vague.

In general, though the manifesto reiterates the importance of international liberalism to the Liberal Democrats. Various parts of this section re-affirm the rights of Hong Kong protestors, Palestinians and Ukrainians alike, and there is an overarching theme of combatting discrimination, nationalism, authoritarianism and the like all around the world.

But, the manifesto does not seek to act alone. There are also plans to revive the Iran nuclear deal with the EU, support the Paris Climate Agreement and work to set an EU-wide target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In sum, this section is roughly as one would expect for the Liberal Democrats. Of course, policies like the support of a two-state solution regarding Palestine and Israel are always going to be controversial, but at least the Liberal Democrats, like Labour, took a side in the debate and detailed their position. This should be viewed in contrast to the Conservative manifesto which does not mention either Palestine or Israel at all.

Conclusions

All in all, there are some proposals that are well worth considering for any political party in this manifesto, and it does very well to draw attention to certain issues that the other two main parties have not considered in as much detail. I say this specifically in relation to the focus on mental health treatment and support, which is clearly emphasised in various sectors.

As well as this, proposals such as a “curriculum for life,” are certainly worth further debate and I would argue that Liberal Democrat plans for the criminal justice system and legal aid are the most ambitious of all of the main three parties.

It should be said that plenty will disagree on their policy to revoke article 50 and stop Brexit, and there are various areas of the manifesto that I have found to be lacking in detail, such as their plans for regional devolution of power. But on the whole, there are definitely positives that should be placed into the mainstream debate over the next few years, whether or not the Liberal Democrats are a part of government.

So, if you are looking for a party that would stop Brexit, marginally increase taxes to fund the NHS and invest in infrastructure, then the Liberal Democrats may be for you.

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Matthew Hemmins

Second year History/Economics student with a passion for politics and plenty of opinions on a variety of topics!