Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Labour Party Manifesto

The launching of the current General Election in the UK has not been particularly inspiring, either in terms of the type of campaign that, thus far, the major parties have engaged in, or in terms of the quality of coverage provided by the mainstream media. Whilst it is hardly the principal point of this blog to comment in detail on British politics I have decided that it is worth while placing on record responses to the manifestoes of the three main parties indicating both the central areas each one addresses and some signal points made within them, not least in terms of the education policies offered and the type of foreign policy advocated, but also, a general sense of the idea of the party that is conveyed by the manifesto. 

The manifesto of the Labour Party is different from that of the two other main parties as it provides a defence of the record of the party in government in addition to indicating priorities for the period to come. There are 10 specific areas covered in the manifesto: growth, living standards, education, health, crime and immigration, families and older people, communities and creative Britain, Green recovery, democratic reform and a global future. After laying out the responses to these specific areas the document concludes with a list of the top 50 objectives that have been discussed within it, reiterating them.

The first point to notice, one that is hardly surprising in the current economic climate, is the opening stress on the economy. Here, in a form that is reminiscent of the days of Tony Blair, all the talk is of "tough choices" indicating how robust the party will be in dealing with matters that others would, naturally, just shirk. Looking beyond this point the emphasis in fact indicates that Labour would basically seek greater value for money from public services and is going to cut the majority of them. Additionally all those working in the public sector will have an effective pay freeze for at least 2 years, national assets will be sold off, there will be a raft of tax increases (albeit mainly directed only at the very wealthy) and there will be severe pressure placed on those on benefits to find work.

In relation to the banks, Labour pledges that new regulations will be put in place, albeit ones that will largely be administered by entities such as the Financial Services Authority which proved singularly poor at managing matters in the past. The first mention of universities in the manifesto occurs in the context of discussion of the economy with emphasis on the creation of innovation and capital funds to try and ensure that universities participate more in wealth-creation. Whilst in itself this is a reasonable enough notion it does tend to reinforce the general drift towards diminishment of the humanities in favour of emphasis on science and technology.

Labour indicates a welcome commitment to building up infrastructure, including in the area of transport and rail travel. Similarly, the commitment to the minimum wage being increased in line with earnings is a good one, as is the extension of responsibilities of the Low Pay Commission. Labour is, however, committed to finding ways to continue the expansion of home ownership, a somewhat strange obsession in a climate where an increase in private rented accommodation would make more sense for a lot of people.

Education policy is heavily skewed towards schools with very little detail on universities. One specific point that does come out is that Labour has dropped the 50% target for young people in higher education in favour of a new objective, one whereby 75% of people, by the age of 30, will have gone on to higher education or completed an advanced apprenticeship or technician training. This down-grading of the specific importance of higher education is followed by a commitment to follow the recommendations of a review body the government has set up on student finance, widely expected to recommend increases in student fees. Since this will hardly be likely to increase the allure of higher education for those from lower income backgrounds it is fairly safe to say that Labour has decidedly little interest in higher education. The increases anticipated in student intake in the sector are for two-year Foundation degrees and applied study so, again, downgrading of full-time higher education and little interest in anything from humanities or the social sciences.

On international affairs the manifesto makes a great deal of commitment to troop levels in Afghanistan with Strategic Defence Reviews and a National Safety Strategy following on. Clearly foreign policy is mainly thought of in terms of combatting terrorism though the party does indicate it is committed to the enlargement of the European Union. Commitment is made to the creation of a Palestinian state but, since this objective has been announced regularly within the last few years, it merits scepticism how vigorously a Labour government would push for this. A great deal is added in terms of an anti-poverty global agenda but a number of the other points mentioned are very vaguely worded. The claim that the UN should be subjected to radical reform is one that is hard to argue with but it is not clearly substantiated what it would mean. 

The general emphasis of the manifesto does not create the impression of a renewed party that is going, if re-elected, to make things really different. The general agenda of the manifesto is imbued with the same spirit as the government of the last few years so one's attitude towards the manifesto is likely to be coloured by how one views the achievements of those years. In some areas it is as noticeable what is not said as what is said. So, in education policy, in line with the general lack of attention given to universities, there is no mention of the REF, no discussion of the "impact" agenda and no account given of plans for national research strategies outside an overall view of thinking everything comes down to stressing the STEM subjects. Similarly, aside from indicating continued commitment to the EU, there is little in the foreign policy that indicates any specific thought of how to develop the UK's standing in the world.

This manifesto seems a somewhat tired document that lacks any clear overarching theme. The general idea is clearly that of helping out those on low-incomes though this is coupled with a stick directed towards the long-term unemployed. But little is said about the nature of the cuts that will come when those "tough choices" are made.

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