What the manifestos really tell us

May 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

The manifestos tell us that Britain has a big gap in its major-party politics, a gap that’s bigger than it has been perhaps in a generation. It’s not, however, the one that the media seemed to be angling for. The expectation given was of a “hard right” Tory party against a “hard left” Labour party. Neither prediction, looking at the policy detail, is anywhere near correct.

It turns out that Britain doesn’t have a gaping need for a centrist party. It has a desperate need for a liberal one.

The Tory manifesto is hard to write much about because it’s so light on detail – but it’s clear that this is one of the most hardline nationalist and authoritarian programmes for government in decades, possible the most so since the second world war. Rising requirements for couples to bring their spouses to the UK, an uncosted “aim” of cracking down on migrant numbers at the expense of the economy, and a commitment to a hard Brexit with the possibility of a cliff-edge one left open all leave any idea of the Conservatives as an economically sane option in tatters. They also destroy the idea of a “compassionate” or “liberal” conservatism – a spurious idea at the best of times, but now more clearly than ever a simple lie. Opposing this Tory isolationism will have to fall to the Lib Dems (and to a lesser extent the Greens) – we need people more than ever in parliament who are prepared to be unequivocal about the virtues of reaching out to the world.

May’s vicious stance towards foreigners is a known quantity, however. There are also big and worrying new issues from a liberal perspective in the Tory manifesto. Massive new commitments to internet regulation could have a chilling effect on free speech and allow the government unprecedented and dangerous levels of management over what needs to be a neutral, public, free conduit for information. The Tories are openly seeking to change voting systems to suit themselves too, with plans to implement first past the post in the London Assembly and Mayoral elections, making a joke of local democracy and choking out smaller parties from the political scene. It’s not just Brexit that means we need liberal voices opposing the Tories: it’s genuine threats to our democracy.

Corbyn’s Labour, meanwhile, have managed to talk a strong socialist game, but it’s not reflected in the manifesto. The much talked of programme of renationalisation has had little to no money allocated to it; even with the railways, only the management is set to move back to state control, as apparently no money has been set aside to buy back the rolling stock. More surprisingly still, the party is being far, far less ambitious in reversing Tory welfare cuts than the Lib Dems, with McDonnell apparently hoping to keep the child tax credit cuts and benefit freeze in place (which would, one imagines, be a very nasty shock). As much as I passionately believe in moving toward free at the point of use higher education, I know far too many people who’ve suffered under the current benefits system believe that it’s a higher priority than rebuilding the country’s badly damaged social safety net. I have no qualms about saying that before 2015 Labour were absolutely right to call the coalition out on the damage they did to social security, and that my own Lib Dems were wrong in failing to oppose more of the DWP’s excesses: and yet it now feels almost cynical that Labour, having got this far largely on the basis of that very principled position, isn’t actually seeking to reverse some of the harshest cuts yet.

But regardless – a more simple, gaping fact remains, and that is that Corbyn’s Labour is not a liberal party. Which shouldn’t be news to anyone, but it still seems to rile people who believe that as a progressive voter I am in some way a traitor or closet conservative for disputing the idea that Labour is the only progressive option in every respect. It’s simple when one looks at the manifesto, though. Labour under Corbyn has retained its commitments to mass surveillance, to an undemocratic electoral system, to expensive and failing drug laws, to a criminalisation system that puts sex workers at risk. Labour’s manifesto devotes its entire section on the self-employed to discussing people who aren’t really self employed, and a vague commitment to the UK taking its “fair share” of refugees comes with precisely no money or concrete pledges at all to back it up. And then of course there’s Labour’s commitment to ending Freedom of Movement, which commits a Labour government to a hard Brexit and the end of any sensible trade deal (also meaning in the process that many of Labour’s budget calculations are wildly optimistic, based as they are on heavily taxing prosperous industries that are likely to up sticks and head abroad when the UK leaves the EU).

As is probably obvious, I have no problem with Labour under Corbyn being “too left wing”. They’re really not saying anything dramatic there, placing themselves well to the right of the Lib Dems on social security and offering very similar funding increases to the NHS. But having liberal values, believing people should have an equal say in our democracy, caring about people regardless of what sort of work they do, taking evidence based approaches to social problems rather than punitive ones, having an open and internationalist mindset – those things I do care about, I believe I’m right to care about them, and right not to support either of the two main parties that very clearly do not care about them, never have done and show no sign of ever doing so.

And that is, I guess, what keeps me going and talking about these things, through all the shouts of “enemy of the people” and “yellow Tory” and whatever other bogus nonsense gets thrown at me on any particular day online. I know that no other party, no matter how much easier it might make my life if I joined a bigger bandwagon, will actually articulate many of the problems I see in British society. Nobody will say these things if liberals don’t, if we don’t, if I don’t. I am a liberal and a Lib Dem because I believe, as our constitution calls for, in a society where we balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. If the manifestos show one thing above all, it’s that if we didn’t have a party with those goals, we’d have to invent one.

Radical, articulate, hopeful liberalism is so desperately needed in politics right now – and there is, quite simply, no substitute on offer.

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