This article concerns the major parties of the United Kingdom and their visions for the nation. It will focus primarily on manifesto pledges and on the party leaders. It is not meant to persuade you to vote for any particular party; it attempts to provide you with information and analysis on legal and educational issues, so that you, yourself, can formulate a conclusion.
It’s worth making a comment on manifestos in general and whether or not they can be trusted. The number of pledges in manifestos has increased over twentyfold over the decades (18 in 1945, 207 in 2001, over 500 made in the 2010 Conservative manifesto). Does this mean that the pledges made are not likely to be fulfilled?
According to a study conducted by Dr Bara, 88% of pledges between 1987 and 2005 were fulfilled, indicating at least some honesty in manifestos. But, Dr Bara’s study also distinguished between pledges which were vague, general and specific, and only 16% of pledges made between 1987 and 2005 were specific. This is something we have seen in the manifestos above. Many vague pledges have been made this election cycle, which wouldn’t actually require much in effort or resources to technically be fulfilled.
It is also useful to ask how useful the smaller party would be in a coalition. The UCL constitution unit worked out that in the 2010 coalition government, the Lib Dems were able to fulfil 75% of pledges made in their manifesto. This indicates the less significant half of a two party coalition is less successful in translating pledges into solid policies than the larger party. Nonetheless, the Lib Dems still fulfilled three quarters of their pledges, which does indicate some form of success. But, whilst the Lib Dems wouldn’t necessarily be useless in a coalition government, the reality is that in most constituencies, a Liberal Democrat candidate does not stand a chance of winning a simple majority. Unless you live in a constituency where the Lib Dems at least came 3rd in the 2015 election, the unfortunate truth is that you may risk wasting your vote if you vote for the Lib Dems.
Concerning the Conservatives and Labour, it is quite unfortunate that neither of the two parties which are most likely to form a government have put forward a moderate vision. The reality is that your choice is between a potentially statist rule, and a potentially economically incompetent rule.
The Labour Party take a different approach to legal aid. The manifesto notes the ‘disturbing consequences’ of the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid, and pledges to provide greater funding where necessary. There is also mention of a review of the legal aid means test. However, it is worth noting here that there are no specific promises or pledges, there are no numbers to back up legal aid pledges, and following review it could be found that the legal aid means test is satisfactory in its current form. In short, whilst Labour goes further than the Conservatives, neither party’s pledges are sufficient when it comes to legal aid.
What is also noteworthy is the pledge concerning judicial review cases. Labour pledges to reintroduce ‘funding for the preparation of’ such cases. This reinforces the party’s attitude towards governmental accountability, and their attitude towards basic rule of law principles (although, once again, with no figures, this pledge could mean nothing). Labour build on this with their pledge to retain the Human Rights Act. Again, this signals a prioritisation of civil liberties and individual rights over absolute national security. Whether or not these pledges concerning rights are appealing depends entirely upon one’s preference.
This indication is strengthened by passages such as:
‘Democracy is founded upon the rule of law and judicial independence. We will also review the judicial appointments process, to ensure a judiciary that is more representative of our society.’
This is an explicit recognition of the importance of the rule of law. Furthermore, the comment regarding the judicial appointment process is promising. Currently the judicial body is not representative of the UK population, with the Supreme Court for example consisting of 10 white men, and 1 white woman. Nonetheless, this comment carries no true weight because, again, it is vague and lacks specifics. A ‘review’ may find that nothing more needs to be done, for example.
This is where Labour’s manifesto packs a heavy punch. The party has pledged an increase in funding of £25bn. As has been widely reported, this would be used to scrap tuition fees as soon as the coming academic year, and reintroduce maintenance grants for students. This would evidently benefit students from lower income backgrounds, and could also do much to encourage the aspiring youth from lower income backgrounds to apply to university. There have also been many promising pledges concerning the educational system as a whole. Labour have pledged to cap class sizes for 5-7 year olds at 30 students, and have indicated a desire to do this for older students if funding would allow it. Furthermore, they have made an interesting pledge of £90 million to children’s mental health, which is a promising indication that a Labour government would take young peoples’ mental health into greater consideration than it previously has.
This is all well and good, but could a Labour government really afford to do all of this? The manifesto sets out how they would increase taxation to fund their endeavours, but it is not necessarily a certainty that this would acquire the revenue the Labour Party hopes it will. As George Bull, senior tax partner at accountants RSM, puts it, ‘at the heart of the Labour Party manifesto is the gamble that the top 5% of British taxpayers and larger companies can and will pay an extra £48.6bn per year without undermining the economic health of the nation.’
A Labour government may pledge to do far more than a Conservative government, but are these pledges realistic, or is the Labour party suffering from impractical idealism?
Much has been said about Jeremy Corbyn and his ‘unelectability’. Recent polls seem to show that this may not be the case: Labour is within 1-5 points of the Conservative party in most of said polls. So, how would Prime Minister Corbyn fare? If he can accomplish what he sets out to, this could make a real difference to the people of the nation. But are the policies he and his party set out practical? And if so, can Corbyn, who has never held a governmental position, succeed as Prime Minister in implementing them?
It is notable/interesting/revealing, take your pick, that the media appears to scrutinise Jeremy Corbyn at an unfair level. Throughout the months before the snap election was announced, the media was filled with rumours and questions of Corbyn’s resignation, meanwhile there was little criticism of the PM, Theresa May.
2. LIBERAL DEMOCRATS
Concerning legal aid, the Liberal Democrats criticise the Conservatives for cutting it and for ‘failing to defend the rule of law’. They also pledge to secure ‘funding for criminal legal aid from sources other than the taxpayer’. But these are the only two mentions of legal aid in the entire manifesto. Again, there are no specific promises, no numbers, just vague statements. This is unsatisfactory.
Despite this, the Liberal Democrats have the most thorough section on individual rights out of the three major parties. Similarly to Labour, they pledge to ‘oppose any attempt to withdraw from the ECHR or abolish or water down the HRA’, indicating a prioritisation of rights over absolute security.
However, the Lib Dems go further by introducing a ‘digital bill of rights’, which would protect a person’s digital information interests over the interests of large organisations. They further pledge to preserve ‘the neutrality of the web’. Whilst there are no real specifics, this is a wholly different approach to that of the Conservatives and of Labour, both of whom only pledge to protect the internet privacy of children. Again, your preference would depend entirely upon whether you prioritise individual rights or security. The Lib Dems appear to prioritise individual rights.
The Lib Dems also go the furthest with regards to minority rights, pledging to require all large companies to publish data on gender/BAME/LGBT+ employment levels and pay gaps. They also want to introduce name-blind recruitment in the public sector, and want to ensure that every shortlist for public appointments should include at least one BAME person. Possibly the most interesting pledge is that to ‘to develop a government-wide plan to tackle BAME inequalities,’ and to ‘review the Equality and Human Rights Commission’. The Lib Dems are the only major party to go so far with regard to BAME issues.
The Liberal Democrats’ education package is larger than the Conservatives’ (adding £7 bn to the current budget), and their proposals do include figures and specifics. They, for example, focus on the early years, pledging to increase early year premiums by £1000 per pupil per year, to introduce mental health into school curriculums and to provide teachers with training to identify mental health issues. There is also an interesting promise to establish an online ‘family university’ which would be a collaboration between educational and familial organisations to provide parents with guidance and opportunities. Like Labour, the Lib Dems have identified the importance of monitoring mental health in the early years, but they seem to put more emphasis on it, with more policy proposals on the issue.
Concerning tuition fees, the party does not commit itself to anything, only committing to a ‘review’ of finances. Once again, a review could find that nothing needs to be changed. They do however pledge to reinstate maintenance grants. But again, there is an element of obscurity in this proposal, as the Lib Dems pledge to reinstate them ‘for the poorest students’. This begs the question: who would be considered ‘the poorest’? What would be done for those who aren’t ‘the poorest’? Even for those who are considered ‘the poorest’ exactly how much may they receive? These pledges appear to be more practical than Labour’s, and they go further than the Conservative’s, but university students could potentially find themselves no better off than they were before and these manifesto pledges would technically still be satisfied.
Tim Farron seems to be a competent politician. However, it’s difficult to say whether or not he would be able to provide a strong voice in a coalition government for his party. His vision differs significantly from either of the two largest parties, so he may not be able to bring much of his vision into a coalition government.
The Conservatives are certainly on paper the weakest party when it comes to Legal Aid. The only mention of legal aid in their entire manifesto is to ‘restrict’ it from ‘vexatious legal claims against the armed forces’. Not only is this discouraging for those in dire need of legal aid, it follows the commitment to maintain the current position on the ECHR, namely that the army should no longer be bound by it. As I have previously alluded to (for further details see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/plans-to-opt-the-military-out-of-the-echr-whats-best_us_57f3f59ae4b02d64cba52cef), this follows a concerning trend set by this government to remove scrutiny and accountability.
It could conversely be said that the Conservatives actually encourage scrutiny by praising our ‘strong and independent judiciary’. This could potentially indicate that a Conservative government would not push too hard on judicial decisions, and would uphold the rule of law. At the same time, there are some implications that a Conservative government would not hold individual rights in the same esteem as they have been held in the past decade or two.
The manifesto proposes that a Conservative government would ‘consider’ human rights legislation (and the HRA) after the conclusion of Brexit. With the government’s previous intention to scrap legislation, one cannot be sure that the HRA, which has been vital to the survival of individual rights in this nation, will survive at the end of Conservative term. The Conservatives do pledge to remain signatories of the ECHR, but, if the ECHR rights remained without the HRA to give effect to them, any cases would have to be taken to Strasbourg. This is far less practical than bringing a case forward to UK Courts (as can currently be done).
One quote from the manifesto is particularly noteworthy:
‘We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.’
In other words, a Conservative government would place security over individual liberty. It follows that if you prioritise security, the Conservative Party is the strongest party on this issue; but if you prioritise individual rights, it is the weakest.
One of the most discussed Conservative pledges is the one to lift the ban on new grammar schools. The primary question therefore becomes whether grammar schools increase equality of opportunity and social mobility. The percentages of those eligible for free school meals is currently much lower at grammar schools than at comprehensives, with only 2.6% of grammar school students being eligible for free school meals (and therefore being from the poorest backgrounds). Considering the fact that the average proportion of students eligible for school meals in grammar school areas is approximately 18%, this number is worrying. Those from lower income backgrounds are not able to access the advantages that a grammar school education may provide at the same rate as those from higher income backgrounds. Rather than make this a holistic debate about grammar schools, the focus should be on whether or not they can be made accessible to those from lower income backgrounds. Mark Morrin proposes a strategy to target deprived areas and build more grammar schools in these areas, resulting in a greater lower background demographic at grammar schools. See here (http://www.conservativehome.com/thinktankcentral/2016/11/mark-morrin-and-phillip-blond-how-to-help-white-working-class-children-in-deprived-areas-to-prosper.html ) to read more on Morrin’s argument in favour of grammar schools.
As for university tuition fees, the Conservatives have not made pledges to scrap or reduce them. However, they have pledged that universities that wish to charge the maximum fees must be involved in either academy scholarship or in the founding of free schools in the state system. This may help to bridge the inequality of opportunity in the nation, but it is not likely to reassure students who accumulate tens of thousands in debt over the course of their degrees.
There are also pledges made concerning the wider educational system, notably this passage:
‘We want great people to become teachers, teach in our most challenging schools and stay there. We will continue to provide bursaries to attract top graduates into teaching. To help new teachers remain in the profession, we will offer forgiveness on student loan repayments while they are teaching and bring in dedicated support to help them throughout their careers. We will provide greater support for teachers in the preparation of lessons…’
These pledges, whilst promising, lack specifics, numbers and targets. This is something that can be seen throughout all manifestos. However, it is worth noting that the Conservatives have pledged to increase the school budget by £4 billion by 2022, and also plan to build at least 100 new free schools a year. The Conservatives also want to introduce new technical qualifications called ‘T-Levels’, and want to increase teaching hours for technical qualifications by 50% to 900 hours per year. They also want to ensure that ‘each student does a three-month work placement’ in the course. This seems promising as it could potentially provide further access to opportunity for those whose aspire to achieve through alternative/non-academic routes.
When it comes to education, the Conservatives make some interesting and promising pledges, but it seems they are far less prepared to invest than the other major parties.
Theresa May is clearly a competent politician. As Home Secretary, she practically micro-managed the entire department. As Prime Minister, she has shown the capability to push through most of what she sets out. But there have been several actions that her government has taken which can be seen as concerning. As previously mentioned, she withdrew the British army from the ECHR, and she notoriously tried to trigger Article 50 (and thus the ‘Brexit’ process) without consulting parliament. These actions indicate a desire to avoid scrutiny.
This election itself is further indicative of this. The PM called an early election because she saw an opportunity to take advantage of the political climate, using the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the purpose of which was to prevent Prime Ministers from taking advantage of political climate. The PM hoped and hopes to win an incredible majority. This begs the question: what is she planning on doing which makes her want such a majority?