The Conservative manifesto: signalling left, hurtling right

By Savi Hensman
May 31, 2017

The 2017 Conservative Manifesto has been widely discussed in the UK, especially its plans for social care. These were quickly altered after turning out to be very unpopular. Overall the manifesto sends out mixed messages.

It emphasises the value of greater social equality, while tapping into concern for ‘national’ and ‘family’ values. Yet most policies reflect an agenda even more right-wing, in some ways, than Margaret Thatcher’s,  meaningthat inequality would grow further.

There is also much uncertainty about costing. When it became clear that the cost of proposed free primary school breakfasts had been heavily underestimated, credibility was affected. Economic uncertainty is an additional factor, affecting other of the Party’s plans too.

Yet the Manifesto gives some indication of future trends and priorities if the Conservatives return to power in the June election.

Setting the tone

Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future is the Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017. The Northern Ireland Conservative website contains regional policies.

The opening sections emphasise the need for “strong and stable leadership” amidst Brexit and claim that Manifesto policies would result in a “stronger, fairer, more prosperous Britain.”

Five key challenges are set out: ensuring a strong economy, a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and good international relationships, overcoming enduring social divisions, responding to the reality of an ageing society and harnessing the power of fast-changing technology while protecting security personal privacy and young people’s welfare.

There is a clear pitch to traditional Labour as well as Conservative voters, as well as an almost presidential vision of Theresa May as leader. To quote:

We will need to govern in the manner established by Theresa May since she became prime minister last year. We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.

Rather than pursue an agenda based on a supposed centre ground defined and established by elites in Westminster, we will govern in the interests of the mainstream of the British public...

.Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, there will be no ideological crusades. The government's agenda will not be allowed to drift to the right. Our starting point is that we should take decisions on the basis of what works. And we will always be guided by what matters to the ordinary, working families of this nation.

This may in part be a populist pitch, to portray the Prime Minister as a champion of ordinary people rather than part of the establishment. She has been in the Cabinet for seven years, was a financial consultant and is married to a senior investment fund manager.

Yet she will supposedly not govern “for the benefit of a privileged few” but rather for “people who have a job but do not always have job security; people who own their own home but worry about paying the mortgage; people who can just about manage but worry about the cost of living and getting their children into a good school”, who have “been ignored by politicians, and by others in positions of power, for too long.” Why this is so, given that current government leaders are politicians, is unclear.

Reducing inequality

The Manifesto distances itself from “untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”

The rejection of neoliberalism, at least in theory, is not uncommon in the far right. However, to the Conservatives’ credit, support for a broader agenda of social equality is signalled, though this might result in the loss of some votes to extremist parties. The rhetoric chosen is far removed from that of, say, Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the USA or indeed, of Marine Le Pen in France. Even if the reality is less impressive, at least a signal is sent out about human worth.

So, for instance, the pledge of an increase in the minimum wage (confusingly rebranded the 'National Living Wage' in recent years) to 60 per cent of median earnings by 2020, and then by the rate of median earnings, is positive. So is the promise of greater protection for workers in the ‘gig’ economy.

More boldly, the Manifesto calls for action to tackle “tackle the burning injustices that Theresa May identified on the steps of Downing Street last year: longstanding, entrenched injustices that affect people of different ethnicities, genders and those with disabilities and mental ill health.” The desire to make Britain “the world’s Great Meritocracy” might still involve division but at least this would be “based on merit not privilege” of birth.

This includes addressing the gender pay gap, reducing disproportionate use of stop-and-search on the streets, force against black and minority ethnic people in prison  and strengthening the laws against discrimination on grounds of mental health. Stronger legislation on domestic violence and hate crime on the basis of religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity are also pledged.

Though such measures send out a valuable message on the equality and diversity, the actual impact will probably be more modest. Indeed, inequality would be likely to continue to grow overall, based on existing trends and other measures in the manifesto.

For instance, with regard to pegging the minimum wage to median earnings, there has been a sustained fall in real earnings in recent years , fuelling record levels of household debt. If Brexit or the bursting of the housing bubble result in economic collapse, low-paid workers might be especially vulnerable.

It is uncertain if there would be a more than tokenistic effect if the pledge went ahead that, “To ensure employees’ interests are represented at board level, we will change the law to ensure that listed companies will be required either to nominate a director from the workforce, create a formal employee advisory council or assign specific responsibility for employee representation to a designated non-executive director.” Despite the attempt to shrug off the now stained mantle of commitment to unbridled capitalism, the manifesto goes on to state that “The United Kingdom will be a global champion for an open economy, free trade, and the free flow of investment.”

Likewise, the 2012 abolition of legal aid in most employment matters would make enforcement of protection for workers difficult. Government restrictions on legal help to domestic abuse survivors also had a drastic impact, to the extent that this was found to be unlawful  Many refuges have lost funding.

Again, the Manifesto contains harsh policies on letting in refugees and migrants. Though racism and xenophobia are not the only reasons why some voters endorse such measures, these tendencies tend to flourish against a background of fear and hostility towards ‘foreigners’. Actually achieving a large reduction in the numbers coming in without severely affecting public service staffing and some industries might be near-impossible. But unmet expectations might intensify resentment against minorities.

People with mental health problems and other disabled people have been hard hit by social security cuts and an obsession with getting people into ‘work’. The manifesto seems to promise more of the same. “We will get 1 million more people with disabilities into employment over the next ten years”, it states. “We will continue to ensure a sustainable welfare system, with help targeted at those who need it most. We will legislate to give unemployed disabled claimants or those with a health condition personalised and tailored employment support.”

The consequences can be drastic. News stories in the days following the launch included that of a cardiac patient ordered back to work, who almost immediately suffered a heart attack

Cuts in public services are also having a disproportionate effect on disabled people , and often on others facing discrimination. But many others are affected too. This aspect of the manifesto is another which sends out mixed signals.

NHS, social care, education and other public services

Much media attention has been focused on changing Conservative plans for social care. It now appears that numerous people requiring home care will have to sell their homes to fund this, as a smaller number of residential care users do at present, but there will be a cap.

In addressing public services overall, the picture painted might seem surprisingly rosy. Many people have seen or experienced the impact of NHS, school and other underfunding, including long queues at emergency departments.

However, apparently “Outcomes in the NHS for most major conditions are considerably better than three, five or ten years ago”, though further action is required to “help the NHS provide exceptional care in all parts of England”. (Arrangements vary across the UK, with some health functions devolved.)

There is a pledge to “increase NHS spending by a minimum of £8 billion in real terms over the next five years, delivering an increase in real funding per head of the population for every year of the parliament.” This appears to be money already budgeted for, according to a minister’s answer to a question about costing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes this would also apply to schools funding  and would not meet increasing need.

Another change would involve reviewing the NHS ‘internal market’ and “in time for the start of the 2018 financial year, we will make non-legislative changes to remove barriers to the integration of care.” In view of ongoing privatisation, this might potentially involve handing over sizeable chunks of primary and secondary services to private integrated health care providers, giving them considerable power over who is given or refused care.

The promise of at least a hundred free schools a year (which can be run by private sector bodies with no experience of providing education and with unqualified staff) is a further blow to state education. Creating more selective schools would be likely to increase inequality. The pledge to strengthen technical education might however, benefit some young people. However, unless care is taken, ensuring “that each student does a three-month work placement as part of their course” might exploit youth and displace paid workers.

The creation of more social housing sounds promising – but might come at a cost. This would only happen in areas “with ambitious, pro-development, local authorities” – possibly those which accommodate the wishes of private developers. There is an intriguing promise that “we will build new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants, the proceeds of which will be recycled into further homes.” This sounds as if state money might be used to build housing where social tenants could live for a few years but which would often end up owned by private landlords or property companies.

The manifesto sidesteps the ongoing impact of cuts, including on public health. It seems likely that deaths rose by 30,000 in 2015, largely due to cuts in health and social care, numbers remained high in 2016 and years of rising life expectancy may have been disrupted or even reversed

Safe and secure?

The Manifesto rightly takes account of the fact that new technology brings threats as well as opportunities. Some measures might seem sensible, for instance strengthening digital security and new rights to require social media companies to delete information about young people when they turn eighteen.

Yet physical security might be especially on people’s minds. While the Conservative Party might have been conventionally been seen as the party of ‘law and order’, confidence might have been shaken by recent events, particularly as Theresa May was personally warned, while Home Secretary, of the danger of terrorism in Manchester as a result of police cuts, but nonetheless chose to press ahead .

Despite the pledge that “We will help Britain’s world-leading police forces and prosecutorial services to fight crime, protect the public and provide security for businesses”, nationally there have been dramatic cuts in police numbers.

No doubt some voters will be impressed by the promise: “We will play a leading role in NATO and maintain the ability to conduct strike operations, peacekeeping, security missions and the deployment of a joint expeditionary force. We will maintain the overall size of the armed forces, including an army that is capable of fielding a war-fighting division. We shall expand our reach around the world. We will retain the Trident continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our security.” However at an international level, the failure to counter militarism and to embrace an ethical foreign policy leaves the UK, and world, at greater risk.

In addition, while it would indeed be good to “take action against poor air quality in urban areas”, the Manifesto also contains few concrete measures to combat the environmental damage which poses such a risk to global security. The promised “comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan” could end up being mainly aspirational.

Democracy and human rights

It is perhaps in regard to human rights and democracy that the Manifesto most clearly echoes far-right principles. It promises to press ahead with a boundary review, based on reducing parliamentary representation of poorer areas and sections of the population 

Repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act would give a further advantage to the party in power, while ending proportional representation for mayoral elections would leave many voters feeling disempowered.

Of even greater potential concern is a pledge to “legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting”. This controversial policy might especially disenfranchise minority ethnic, low-income and disabled adults, a reversal of the principle of equality for all. The Electoral Reform Societyis one of the critics of this proposal.

Brexit could lead to a drastic loss in enforceable rights for UK residents, the Manifesto indicates. It states, “We will not bring the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law. We will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway but we will consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes. We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.”

To “defeat extremism”, the Manifesto contains a pledge to ”consider what new criminal offences might need to be created, and what new aggravated offences might need to be established, to defeat the extremists.” Important as it is to counter ideologies promoting intimidation of and violence against civilians, too loose a definition of extremism could lead to repression and be counter-productive. The warnings of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights should not too lightly be dismissed.

In addition, controls on the internet, if too broad, could reduce freedom of speech .

Forward together?

There is some political courage in including unpopular measures in the manifesto, such as making low and medium-income frail older and other disabled people sell their homes to get home care and opening the door to reduced restrictions on fox-hunting. However there are robust reasons why many voters object to these changes.

Forward, Together sets out a “vision of a nation united, of shared opportunity, of safe, vibrant and sustainable communities and of a Great Meritocracy, where everyone, in every part of our country, is given the chance to go wherever their talents will take them.” Yet there is often a mismatch between the aspiration to overcome divisions and insecurity and policies which might, in practice, deepen them. In addition, ongoing cuts and privatisation could reduce resilience in dealing with situations such as epidemics and heatwaves. The impact could be grim.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Ekklesia's General Election theme for 2017 is #Vote4CommonGood. This will be explored by writers and researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as analysis of the different party manifestos in relation to the principles and policies we have advocated for many years.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.