Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Conservative Manifesto: The Longest Coalition Document in History?

Hot on the heels of Labour, David Cameron published the Conservative manifesto yesterday. What was most immediately striking, apart from proposals to create social housing ghettoes (see below), was how much overlap the headline policies had with someone else:

 - no tax on people earning the minimum wage (UKIP)
 - raise bottom tax threshold to £12.5k (libdems)
 - extra £8bn on the nhs (Libdems, except it isn't, Clegg is promising £8bn per year, the Conservatives promise 'a minimum of £8bn over the next 5 years', which isn't the same thing)
 - freeze rail fares (Labour)
 - 30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds (Labour, though they only offer 25)
 - build more houses (everyone)
 - Right to Buy (Mrs Thatcher)

With the exception of the SNP, there are bones thrown in all directions, which either highlights political consensus, or flags up the scope for coalition discussions, depending on how you look at it.

Compared to Labour, it was a much easier document to work through, with some pretty detailed policy sections, and what looked like a comprehensive programme in a lot of areas. Here's what stood out for me:

1. Of the £30bn needed to reduce the deficit - it's 'fiscal consolidation', not cuts folks - £25bn is coming from public services, roughly half from welfare and half from other departments. There's no detail of where most of the welfare cuts will come from, apart from a reduced cap on total welfare income and scrapping Job seekers allowance for under-21s. There'll be a temporary Youth Allowance instead which stops if you don't take one of the 3m apprenticeships or a job.

2. There's a lot of specific regional and infrastructure spending, which makes me wonder why we couldn't have done some of it in the last 5 years. This is a bit of a dividing line with Labour, who despite talking about using borrowing to invest more, don't have the same commitments on infrastructure investment. Curious. However, it does allow them to name drop pretty much every region in the UK, which is politically clever.

3. A lot of devolution - more powers for all the bits of the UK, and for anywhere that chooses to have an elected mayor (and not if you don't!).

4. Tony Blairs Labour had a reputation as the champions of reannouncement, repeating declarations of new spending on several different occasions as though it wasn't the same cash over and over again. The Conservatives go one better, repeating the same announcement within the same paragraph. The pledge not to tax the minimum wage is basically the same as the pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500 per year. At the moment, if you work on the minimum wage for 30 hours a week you earn £10, 452. And the threshold is 10.6k. How convenient! The Tories pledge to get the minimum wage up to £8 an hour, which will earn you £20 per year shy of the £12.5k threshold. So effectively it's the same policy, but announced in two different ways.

5. The married couples allowance stays, and rises marginally, and this is what qualifies as supporting relationships. There's passing mention of the 'troubled families' programme, but no indication of whether it will be renewed, expanded or scaled back. No mention of epidemic rates of relationship breakdown, fatherless families, and the effect all this has on the mental and emotional health of the adults and children involved. There is almost a conspiracy of silence around the family and how to support and invest in it.

6. On education, it looks like things will get a bit quieter - more of the same, rather than revolution. Worryingly for students, there is no mention of the level of the tuition fee cap, so it's left open for this to be increased. Watch this space. There'll also be loans for postgraduate degrees. The education budget is 'protected' - which means that if the number of pupils rises, so will the amount of money. It's not protected against inflation. So there will be a real terms cut in money going into schools under the Conservatives if inflation ever rises above 0%. So the word 'protected' actually means 'cut'. Again and again I was frustrated at the slippery way things were presented in this document, which then made it harder to give credit where it was due. Interesting that they keep the two flagship Libdem policies, free school meals for infants and the pupil premium.

7. The NHS - I really struggled to get my head round how politicians think about this. There's no point recruiting extra doctors and nurses if they're leaving as quickly as they arrive. 5000 nurses are leaving the NHS each year, mid-career. But responding to that entails accepting there's a problem, and like every other section, the bit on the NHS starts with a section on how poorly Labour did and how well the Conservatives have done. Sorry, but there needs to be more reality here. The section on mental health, apart from supporting mums during and after pregnancy (good) had very little. No specific targets, money, or policies. Not good enough.

8. The Big Society is back! All quiet for 3 years, whilst most of us got on with staffing food banks, there's now the new initiative to encourage volunteering (you'll need those extra 3 days a year if you're a governor of an academy, it's a couple of leagues up from being governor of a normal school, and that was demanding enough). I wonder what the Italian paymaster of Westlands, whose workers here in Yeovil will all be entitled to 3 days a year off, will think of that! It's an odd policy, but I think I like it. What I didn't like was the manifesto taking credit for £8bn a year going into heritage art and sport. It claimed this was 'public and lottery funding', but since the lottery puts in £1.6bn a year, that doesn't leave much for the government! In fact, it gets a tax from the lottery, so it makes a profit. Better controls on online pornography are welcome, but I'd have liked to see something on gambling and payday loans.

9. Not many people have picked up on the plan to cut the number of MPs to 600 and revise parliamentary boundaries. That could be quite significant in the long run.

10. Sorry but the Right To Buy plans are like the AV referendum (remember that?) a potentially ok plan scuppered by dreadful delivery. The AV option put to the vote was probably the worst form of proportional representation, and there are a lot of things wrong with the RtB format. Forcing the most expensive properties to be sold off? Well lets have a think. They'll either be the biggest ones (which Housing Associations have previously pulled down to build more, smaller units), or those in the nicest neighbourhoods. Smaller dwellings, and poorer neighbourhoods, will remain social housing. The long term effect is obvious: nicer areas will become almost 100% owner-occupied, and social housing will become more concentrated in areas of lower value. Around here, house prices in Sherborne were recently shown to be £100k higher on average than those in Yeovil. So if you applied the policy locally, all the social housing tenants would end up in Yeovil.

There's also an inevitable time-lag. It takes 10-20 years round here to find and buy land, get planning permission, and build new houses. Without being able to take out big loans, the housing associations won't have the money to buy land and build houses until the RtB units are sold, you can't replace them like tins on a shelf. So RtB will build in an extra shortage on top of the 1.4m that currently exists, around the time it takes to build the replacement properties.

11. Goodbye wind turbines. Subsidies for onshore wind will be scrapped, and they will 'change the law so that local people have the final say on windfarm applications'. Giving local people 'the final say' is a nimbys charter, nobody is campaigning for wind farms to be built on their skyline. What will Eric Pickles do with his time now that he hasn't got all those wind farms to veto? Words about 'cost effective' green technology suggest that economics, rather than carbon emissions, will be the deciding factor for any Tory greenery.

12. I'm worried about propsals to ban 'extremists' from working with children. We all know they mean ISIS sympathisers and the like,  but the way the cultural wind is blowing, anyone like me who takes the 'traditional' line on marriage is seen as a phobe and an extremist. Will there be unintended consequences?

13. The manifesto alludes to 'space for resentment to fester' over Scottish MPs voting on English laws. As I recall, this wasn't that much of an issue until Cameron stoked it up after the referendum last year. Standard marketing practice, create a demand ex nihilo then produce a product that meets the manufactured need. Shabby.

14. I was glad to see the case being made for keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of GDP, with some stats on lives saved, children immunised, access to clean water etc. This needs to keep being said. Well done.

There is a lot more to get your teeth into here than the Labour manifesto, but aside from the economy and infrastructure, where there seems to be a fair bit of thinking, other areas of policy get a token nod. There's nowhere near enough on climate change, family support, and mental health. The loud silences in some areas (food banks, details of welfare cuts) the slippery presentation in others (tax on minimum wage, EVEL, school and NHS funding) and the awful ideas around Right to Buy, don't inspire me with confidence. There's a programme of action, but true to Cameron there isn't much of an underlying philosophy.

Despite the levels of detail in some areas, it just doesn't leave me with a sense of a party which has really got to grips with all the issues we face. It's not just about the economy. The Bishops call for an 'attractive vision' of a society has fallen on deaf ears. The most eye-catching policies are of the 'retail politics' variety - vote for us and we'll give you this. There isn't much here, aside from the aid target and the volunteering scheme, that calls on us to put others first, to think of 'us' rather than 'I'.

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