Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Conservative Party Manifesto

By contrast to the Labour Party manifesto, viewed in the last posting, the Conservative Party's version is organised not in 10 sections but only in 5. The basic emphasis on "change" that would be expected from an opposition party is rather heavily emphasised in the document as 3 of the 5 headings include the word: change the economy; change society; change politics; protect the environment; promote our national interest. As with the Labour Party, so the lead element of the manifesto is the economy. Unlike the Labour Party, the Conservatives stress a basic theme running through the whole document that is meant to knit them all together, the much touted notion of the "big society", a basic emphasis that accords with their traditional stress on shrinking the state, a shrinkage that, given their agreement with the Labour emphasis on cuts in state entitlement, is one they are better placed to put at the front of their vision of Britain than Labour is.

The Conservative manifesto is a lot better illustrated than the Labour one, with lots of nice graphs and pictures of people and places we are expected to empathise with (including Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester amongst the places, none of which are Conservative areas). When the outline of the specifics of the plan emerges however, it is less different from Labour than might be expected. Opening with a claim that we need to establish an Office for Budget Responsibility that would restore trust in the public's view of the government's ability to run things they generally hope to ride on public discontent with the state of the economy and the deficit in particular. In indicating they would stop paying tax credits to people earning more than £50,000 they also attempt to suggest that they are not simply the party of the wealthy. However, in pinning a great deal on reversing Labour's planned increase of National Insurance payments they quickly disabuse one that they are going to lay out any serious economic plan as the amount involved in this measure is, to say the least about it, paltry.

The Conservatives pledge to match Labour's spending plans for health and overseas aid allowing them effectively to cut all other programs with the exception of defence which will be allotted its own review. The first mention of universities, as with the Labour Party, is in terms of university-business links with concomitant shared emphasis on STEM subjects at the expense of humanities and social science. The next mention of higher education is in terms of a commitment to delay the Research Excellence Framework so that it can be reviewed in terms of a more robust methodology being developed. Whilst this is welcome in principle it doesn't look likely to amount to more than a stay of execution on plans to make universities generally more responsive to business as indicated in the earlier proposal. Like the Labour Party they refer to the planned review into student finance that is almost certain to recommend increasing fees students pay.

A distinctive idea that is welcome is the proposal to create a Consumer Protection Agency that would take over part of the powers of the discredited Financial Services Agency (unlike Labour which would leave oversight of everything to the FSA). There is at the heart of the assessment of the type of society the Conservatives would like to encourage a rather large emphasis on volunteering and civic engagement, a prospectus fitting with cuts in state aid. The Conservatives appear committed to a tougher immigration policy than Labour though the latter advocates a "Australian-style" points system and the former an annual limit on the number of non-EU migrants so the positions are broadly similar.

In relation to the banks the Conservatives say virtually nothing about increase of regulatory oversight, not matching the disentangling of protection of consumers from the FSA with some similar pledge with regard to preventing banks from engaging in the risky practices of the last decade. All that is given is a vaguely worded-pledge to seek international agreement which is hedged by warnings about protecting Britain's economic competitiveness. Like Labour, the response to housing is primarily set out in terms of encouragement for more home ownership, a view that, whilst shared with them, is bizarre in the current setting.

Unlike Labour, the Conservatives do include a section on civil  liberties including the welcome idea that there should be Privacy Impact Assessments with regard to data collection. Bizarrely, however, they also regard it as a priority that the ban on hunting should be put to another vote in the next parliament, hardly a key priority in the current situation.

The discussion of foreign policy is framed in terms of a discussion of national interest with specific focus on defence spending and anti-terrorism, again, much like the Labour Party view. A National Security Strategy is promised but the specifics of foreign policy include seeking greater engagement with China, pressing for an expansion of the Security Council of the UN and a great deal of demands for re-negotiation of various things with the EU.

Overall the peculiar thing about reading this manifesto shortly after reading the Labour one is how significantly similar the two are. The majority of positions are different only by a slight shade and, like the Labour Party, the Conservatives essentially say nothing about the degree and nature of the cuts they will make, eschewing the talk of "tough choices" and focusing instead on moving towards a "more engaged" society. Both indicate a general move towards a situation where the government will shrink and the Conservatives essentially make a virtue out of necessity but their general "big idea" is less than compelling.

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