Wednesday, 6 May 2015

#GE2015: Lies, Damned Lies and Party Manifestos

There’s very little time for people to make their mind up about which party they are going to vote for in this year’s General Election so here’s a quick look at some of the highlights of the various manifestos that are supposed to be selling the different parties with some commentary from my good self.

Let’s start with the Conservatives…

Page 7 of the Tory manifesto states that to build a strong economy, the Tories commit to “keep our economy secure by running a surplus so that we start paying down our debts”, “commit to no increases in VAT, National Insurance contributions or Income Tax” and “crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance and ensure those who can afford to pay the most do”.  These are very laudable goals but can we really trust the Tories to follow through on these commitments?  Based on their past performance I’d hazard a guess and say ‘no’.

Let’s take each point in turn and look at their past record as a guide as to whether they can be trusted on these commitments.  The Tories say that they’ll run a surplus so that the UK can start “paying down our debts” but isn’t that what they have been saying they have been doing in the last five years?  So, if they are only going to start in the next Parliament, they have been lying to the electorate for those five years, haven’t they?

The Tories say that they “commit to no increases in VAT” if they are elected.  Well, we know we can’t trust them on that score because they said exactly the thing before the 2010 election and promptly raised VAT to 20%.

Cameron’s mob say that they will “crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance”.  Again, can we trust them on this pledge?  Seeing as how they did nothing about those things in the last five years (and seeing as how a lot of Tories have done very well from aggressive tax avoidance), I don’t really see them doing much about it next time either.  They also state that they will “ensure those who can afford to pay the most do”.  Again, their track record on getting the better off to pay what they are supposed to isn’t very good; in fact, they have done everything they could to make the low and middle income earners and those on benefits bear the brunt of the taxation and cuts regime they implemented.

On page 14 of the Tory manifesto, the Tories have made a commitment to “keep commuter rail fares frozen in real terms for the whole of the next Parliament”.  This is something they failed to do in the last five years whilst the living standards were dropping like a stone and the cost of living was rising so why should anyone trust them to keep such a pledge when we are supposed to be becoming better off?

The Tories commit to “make your life easier, with more and faster trains, more roads and cycle routes”.  Well, we have got HS2 being built but seeing as how that is a very costly project for very little benefit in reduced travel time, I don’t see how that is making life easier for the residents of Thurrock because most of us will never use HS2.  And how can the Tories pay for more roads and cycle routes, all of which are needed, if they are giving tax cuts here, there and everywhere and supposedly not increasing VAT, etc.?

Another Tory commitment is to “roll out universal broadband and better mobile phone connections, to ensure everyone is part of the digital economy” which are, again, very laudable pledges to make but, unless universal broadband is going to be given freely, it’s not going to be of much help to most people and what about those who, even in this highly technological age, haven’t got a computer?  Seems like very nice things to put in a manifesto but will they really have much impact on the lives of the ‘ordinary’ person in the street?

Page 17 gives us a brilliant commitment to “help businesses to create two million new jobs, so we achieve full employment”.  I can’t fault their ambition but, looking back at their past record and their blind, dogged adherence to their beloved Workfare scheme, I don’t see them doing much in a positive direction on this because they will have to have employers on whom they can push Workfare slaves and those employers won’t have the incentive to hire even low-paid staff if they can get Workfare slaves for free.

Of course, the idea that there will ever be full employment is an illusion and I suppose the Tories are hoping that people won’t realise that before the election.

Page 25 gives Tory commitments to “cut income tax for 30 million people, taking everyone who earns less than £12,500 out of Income Tax altogether”, “pass a new law so that nobody working 30 hours on the Minimum Wage pays Income Tax on what they earn” and “back aspiration by raising the 40p tax threshold – so that no one earning less than £50,000 pays it”.  Great aspirational commitments but, hang on, if so many people will be pulled out of taxation and less will be paying the 40p tax rate, how will the Tories be able to make all their planned cuts and still retain enough capital to be able to pay for all the good stuff they keep saying they will be doing?  All this sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  Probably because it is too good to be true.  There is definitely something the Tories aren’t telling us.

The Tories are also going to “continue to roll out Universal Credit, to make work pay” which seems a little odd seeing as how the whole project is behind schedule and has been very costly thus far and rolled out to very few people.  That’s not to say that Universal Credit hasn’t got its good points for the low-paid but can the enormous upheaval and cost really be worth it?

Another costly commitment is to “bring in tax-free childcare to support parents back into work, and give working parents of 3 and 4-year-olds 30 hours of free childcare a week”.  Question – how are the Tories going to pay for it with so many people paying no Income Tax or less of it?

Page 29 states that the Tories will “keep our ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands”.  Well, the Tories said that migration would be down to tens of thousands during this Parliament and it wasn’t so keeping it as a commitment is like someone saying that they’ll keep their New Year’s Resolution for the whole year despite having broken it within days.

They also state that they will “control migration from the European Union, by reforming welfare rules”.  Well, as migrants from the EU actually have a slight but noticeable positive economic benefit to the UK compared to the negative economic effect they have, this is a rather moot point.  And, unless the rules change, migration from EU member states cannot be controlled by any Government without negotiation with the EU or withdrawing from it.

Page 33 states that a “good education is not a luxury; it should be a right for everyone” followed by a whole host of commitments to school-age children and young people; this is fine but what about having some commitments for adult education?  And, if education is a right for everyone, it should be free, shouldn’t it?  So where is the commitment to getting rid of tuition fees or is this one area where the Tories are going to raise some of the cash they need so they can spend money elsewhere?

Page 37 outlines the Tories commitments to the NHS but, given their past record over the past five years, I wouldn’t trust anything they say on that subject but feel free to read their manifesto yourself if you would like a nice piece of imaginative fiction.

The commitment to “freeze the BBC licence fee, to save you money” on page 41 of the manifesto is, quite frankly, pathetic.  If they really wanted to save people money, they could scrap the BBC licence fee altogether and the BBC could fund itself through its business arm instead.

And, after five years of hearing nothing about the ‘Big Society’, the Tories are trotting it out again with a commitment to “promote equal treatment and equal opportunity for all in a society proud of its tolerance and diversity”.  Given the way the Coalition have treated the poor, sick and disabled over the last five years, I think we can safely say that this commitment is a lie from beginning to end.  And I think Cameron thinks that the ‘Big Society’, or the over dependence on voluntary work to fulfil a necessary function in the UK, is a new idea – it isn’t.  It wasn’t new in 2010 either!

In the attempt to make government work better for you, the Tories plan to “save you money by cutting government waste”.  Well they shouldn’t have started the costly and unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS and their welfare reforms then, should they?

The Tories will “put more of the essential services you use online, to make them more convenient” which is fine if you have a computer or can find one in a library that isn’t already booked up for the whole day.  And what about people whose health condition stops them from using computers at all?

The idea that the Tories will “continue to make government more transparent” is a joke considering the cover-ups over statistics on welfare reform-related deaths, food bank usage and the ever-growing inequality in the UK.

The commitment to “give more people the chance to own their home by extending the Right to Buy to tenants of Housing Associations” has already raised many problematic issues and the possibility that Housing Associations could appeal against being forced to sell their social housing properties so it’s a brave or foolhardy move to put it in the manifesto on page 51.  And where’s the money coming from to help people to buy their house?

The Tories commit to “keep our forests in trust for the nation” which is a bit rich coming from a party that sold off some of our forests during the last five years.

Another commitment that seems a little ‘on the nose’ is the commitment to “keep your bills as low as possible and promote competition in the energy market”.  Again, like rail fares, why do anything about this now when they hadn’t done anything about it when it was needed most?  If things are supposedly getting better for everyone now, why are they suddenly being mindful of the cost of living issue?  I would suggest that it’s their way of sweetening the deal for your vote before the election which will then be reneged on straight after.  Some might call it a bribe.

The Tories commit to “finish the job of police reform, so you can have more confidence that your local policing team is working effectively” which means, on their past five years in office, cutting the numbers of police officers on the streets and putting further strain on those still in work.

One of the most dangerous commitments the Tories are making is buried on page 58 and that is to “scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain”.  This is dangerous because, if the Human Rights Act is scrapped, it will mean that the citizens of the UK will have no inalienable human rights and no cushion against any harsh regime in power.  It open the door to breaches in the fundamental rights that many have lived and died for that they never would have allowed to happen and would never have willingly laid down their lives for.  And, whether you like the European Court of Human Rights or not, they provide the only safeguard against some of the bad decisions made by some of the out-of-touch judges that preside over the courts.

Of course, the Coalition have been taken to court on human rights abuse charges on the welfare reforms amongst other things so they will be happy to see the Human Rights Act scrapped and they make it palatable to the public by selling it on the idea that it’s “so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain”.

I don’t have a problem with their commitments on preventing terrorism and extremism except that they have had a way, over the last five years, of liberal interpretation of anti-terror laws to restrict people’s freedom of expression and privacy so I am very wary of what may happen if the Human Rights Act gets scrapped.

The whole section on “Dignity in your retirement” and the commitments therein are a blatant bribe to buy the ‘Grey Vote’ and, given their track record of bare-faced lying, I would put too much store in their commitments.

I won’t cover the EU and international relations sections as I’ve already given the Tories enough coverage.

I now move onto the Opposition parties and, in so doing, I have to point out that I can’t take into account their past record over the last five years because they either haven’t been in power (Labour, UKIP) or were the minor partners in the Coalition and not able to enact their 2010 manifesto (Liberal Democrats).  Having said that though, I will throw a load of stuff in the Lib Dem’s faces over what they let the Tories get away with.

Page 27 of the Labour manifesto states that Labour will “reverse the 50p tax cut so that the top one per cent pay a little more to help get the deficit down” which sounds great but let us not forget that the previous Labour Government only put it up a short time before the last election.  Some would say that they knew they were on the way out and, knowing that the Tories would drop it straightaway, raised the rate to bring discredit on the Tories.  However, those who have the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden so let’s not dismiss the move as a move in the right direction.

Labour say that they will “not increase the basic or higher rates of Income Tax, National Insurance or VAT” which begs the question of where the money for all their spending plans is coming from. 

They commit to “increase the National Minimum Wage to more than £8 an hour by October 2019 and introduce Make Work Pay contracts to provide tax rebates to firms becoming Living Wage employers”.  This sounds great but will it cause businesses to reduce their staffing levels so they can pay the higher Minimum Wage without affecting their profits?  £8 an hour is certainly not nearly enough to be considered a Living Wage in some areas of the country so how will that affect businesses?  And, if they are going to give tax rebates to Living Wage employers, where is the money coming from to honour their spending plans?  The UK hasn’t got a blank cheque to pay for things you know, Mr Miliband!

Labour commit to “ban exploitative zero-hours contracts” and so they should because they are nothing but a way of fiddling the unemployment figures whilst giving absolutely no stability for the person on such a contract.  However, that also means that the unemployment figures may not look so good when the zero-hours contracts are gone and how will that affect hiring policies?

They state that Labour commits to “reduce tuition fees to £6,000 a year” which is great news but wasn’t it Labour who brought tuition fees in in the first place?  It really comes across as damage limitation given their role in starting to charge for university education in the first place to me.

The manifesto contains a commitment to “freeze energy bills until 2017 and give the regulator the power to cut bills this winter”.  Again, why didn’t Labour do as much back in their last couple of years when it would have helped a lot of people?  And why only for two of the five year term of the Parliament?  If they truly are trying to get back to being the party of the workers, shouldn’t they go all-in?

It’s a bit weird that, given that bankers brought about the global recession that screwed up the country’s finances, Labour commit to “introduce a British Investment Bank and support a network of regional banks”.  Really?!?  Labour wasn’t very good at regulating the banks before and you want to add some more to the sector?

The NHS is in real trouble and needs more investment so the commitment to “invest £2.5 billion more than the Conservatives to recruit 8,000 more GPs, 20,000 more nurses and 3,000 more midwives” but there’s still the matter of where the money’s coming from.  I think I would trust the NHS more in the hands of Labour who started it but money is tight and making grandstanding spending plans like this really needs the money to back it up.

Labour’s manifesto states that they will “give mental health the same priority as physical health, with a new right to access talking therapies” which is fantastic news because it is chronically underfunded but giving a new right to access talking therapies will stretch to breaking point the current service if more trained staff aren’t made available.  Of course, trained staff cost money and fewer people may be inclined to train to become a psychiatrist or therapist because of the tuition fees even at £6,000.

Another laudable commitment is to “protect the entire education budget from early years through to post-16 education” but does that include adult education?  And, if you’re protecting that budget, where are you going to make the savings that everyone knows you’d need to make whilst honouring your spending commitments?

The commitment to “ensure at least 200,000 new homes a year are built by 2020, with first priority for local first time buyers” is fantastic but is Labour going to put a cap on the price of those homes?  What about social housing?  Labour didn’t replace social housing stock at the rate they should have when they were in power so why aren’t they making a commitment on social housing for those who will never be able to afford to get a mortgage?

Labour will “introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee, paid for by a Bank Bonus Tax” which is how things should be; however, have they considered how that pledge will be received by the bankers?

Finally showing some sense in the matter of welfare, Labour state they will “abolish the Bedroom Tax”.  This is good news for those who have been hit by it in the last five years and will rectify the current situation in which it costs more than it saves.  It also eases the pressure on those who want to downsize but can’t find an available smaller property.

Rather a moot point as migrants (from the EU, at least) contribute a little more than they cost the UK, Labour will “ensure migrants will not be able to claim benefits until they have lived here for at least two years” although whether this will dissuade non-EU migrants is difficult to say.

Trying to show that they are looking after the workforce, Labour commits to “make it illegal for employers to undercut wages by exploiting workers”.  It’s a good idea on paper and should stop migrants being picked for jobs because they may be willing to work for less than the Minimum Wage.  There are, however, problems with this idea too.  How can Labour police such a law without adding to the burgeoning public sector staff to enforce such a law?  How could you pay for the extra staff the system would need?  And what would stop a ‘black economy’ in the job market of companies that are deliberately trying to circumvent the law?

Saying Labour will “protect neighbourhood policing by safeguarding over 10,000 frontline police officers over the next three years” but what about the fact that police staffing levels are already low?  Is there a plan to bring in more staff and, if so, how will Labour pay for them?

A weird commitment is Labour’s stated intent to “set up a people-led Constitutional Convention to determine the future of UK’s governance” which sounds good in principle but 1) it’s going to cost money and 2) exactly how is this Convention going to work?  Who’s going to be involved of the running of it?  And who’s going to pick those who’ll run it?

A promise to “give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote” may come and bite Labour in the backside because politicians have a hard enough time getting people to vote now, let alone adding several hundred thousand more.  And are 16 and 17-year-olds politically savvy enough to choose wisely?

Labour intend to “ban MPs from holding paid directorships and consultancies” which is a brave move but might just start building up some of the lost faith people have in politicians.  MPs are on quite enough money as it is without them getting more from second jobs.

I have to wonder what the point in Labour making a pledge to “require large companies to publish their gender pay gap”?  Surely Labour should require companies to pay women exactly the same as men for similar jobs?  It only makes sense people doing similar jobs should be paid the same, regardless of gender.

Again, I will ignore EU and international relations for the sake of time.  If you want to know Labour’s stance, read their manifesto.

Now a quick look at the Liberal Democrat manifesto…

This will be very brief because, judging by the polls, the Lib Dems haven’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning here in Thurrock but they were one of the main parties so I should at least give them and their manifesto a mention.  Pity because it’s the longest by far.

Highlights include a pledge to: “Protect the least well off in society and users of public services from the impact of measures taken to tackle the deficit” which is a bit rich coming from a party that stood around doing nothing to protect the least well off in society with their support of the Bedroom Tax and the wider welfare reforms.

They pledge to “Invest, over the Parliament, extra money for the NHS, essential to protect our health service”.  Where were their raised voices against the NHS reorganisation that led to services being stretched to almost breaking point?  They had some measure of power, not much, but they could have done more and they didn’t.  And, as I keep saying, where’s the money coming from?

The Lib Dems promise to “Limit welfare reductions so we do not destroy the essential safety net that protects us all in times of crisis”.  Again, where were they when the welfare cuts were biting and killing people, driving the working poor into dire poverty and food bank usage?  Excuse me if your party lost all credibility in the last five years.  I’m sure the Lib Dems will look back at the era pre-2010 as the Golden Age when they were a real Opposition party and had some integrity.

Another laughable and completely discreditable promise to “Make deficit reduction fair by ensuring the richest pay their fair share and corporations cannot avoid their tax responsibilities”.  They could have put more pressure on the Tories to make this happen, at least in some small way, but they didn’t so can we trust them to do it now?

If the Lib Dems weren’t so discredited, the pledge to “Continue to develop our Industrial Strategy, working with sectors which are critical to Britain’s ability to trade internationally – motor vehicles, aerospace, low-carbon energy, chemicals, creative industries, offshore and subsea technology and more” would have been fantastic but come across as nothing but a pipe dream now.

They want to “Legislate to make the ‘triple lock’ permanent, guaranteeing decent pensions rises each year” which hits their credibility again as it just comes off as trying to buy the ‘Grey Vote’.

Desperately trying to appear electable, the Lib Dems say that they will “Deliver the £8 billion England’s NHS leaders say is needed to keep it strong, with money for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too” but, yet again, their actions whilst in coalition with the Tories don’t really make me feel that the NHS would be safe in their hands especially if another coalition is needed.

The real shame about this is that the Lib Dems were the first party to champion mental health and well-being as an election issue and their plans make for interesting reading but there’s no way that they’ll get a chance to enact any of their ideas which is a depressing waste of an opportunity.

In fact, there’s a lot on offer that’s good for the UK as a whole in the Lib Dem manifesto such as the Freedoms Act and the Digital Bill of Rights which show a forward looking party who want to protect the rights of the citizen.

I’ll have to leave the Lib Dems there though as it really does depress me reading stuff I know would be good for the country and knowing that there isn’t a hope of any of it getting enacted unless the Lib Dems are asked to go into coalition again and they grow a set of balls.

Finally, let’s look at UKIP’s manifesto…

UKIP wants to “Raise the threshold for paying 40 per cent income tax to £55,000 and introduce a new intermediate tax rate of 30 per cent on incomes ranging between £43,500 and £55,000” which is a very interesting idea.  Having the intermediate tax rate would ensure that people on middle incomes would be protected from the slightly harsher 40% tax rate but would still ensure a steady flow of income.

“UKIP will not allow large companies to continue getting away with paying zero or negligible corporation tax in Britain. We will bring this unfairness to an end.”  Well, finally, someone has said something strong on the subject but it comes at a price, leave the EU and the loopholes that some companies use can be closed.  However, have UKIP taken into account the possible financial damage done to the UK by leaving the EU?

UKIP want to “set up a Treasury Commission to monitor the effectiveness of the new Diverted Profits Tax and bring in any further measures necessary to prevent large multinational corporations using aggressive tax avoidance schemes”.  Actually, this does sound like it might generate the money they say they want to plug into the NHS’ life support system which is great.

There is even, right near the front of the manifesto, some of the sources of the money UKIP will use to fund their spending plans; not hidden within the acres of text but right slap bang in your face:

“Save £9 billion a year in direct net contributions to the European Union budget by leaving the EU

“Reduce the overseas aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GNI, matching the percentage contribution made by the USA. This change will be phased in so projects in progress can be completed and contractual obligations met. Annual savings will increase to £11 billion by 2019/20 and money for bi-lateral aid projects will not be languishing in EU bank accounts

“Save £4 billion a year in capital expenditure by scrapping the HS2 vanity project, which will benefit the few at the expense of many

“Reduce spending by £5.5 billion by replacing the Barnett Formula”

UKIP are also brave enough to hit Westminster where it hurts – in their expenses: “Ceasing all subsidies for bars and dining rooms in the Palace of Westminster” and “Preventing MPs claiming expenses that are not incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of their duties, like every other member of society”.  The trouble is, saying all this is very good but will UKIP actually deliver?  We’ve seen too many broken promises from the other parties over the years.  How many expenses scandals have we had to endure despite protestations of each new administration that they’ll ‘clean up MP’s acts’?

It has been a long held belief of mine that Parliament has to be changed and some of the ideas UKIP are floating are good money-saving and, potentially, more democratic for the nation such as “Reducing the number of secretaries of state, ministers and parliamentary under-secretaries-of-state and, accordingly, the size of government”.  The problem is, would UKIP get enough seats to make their plans a reality?  Would they listen to various different viewpoints before putting any changes into action so that the reforms really would be beneficial to the country as a whole?

The message that comes out of the UKIP manifesto on immigration comes across a lot less xenophobic than people might think the party is with ideas such as putting “a five-year moratorium on immigration for unskilled workers, which will enable the unemployed already living here to find work and those already working to see wage growth” and I’ve always been in favour of the points-based immigration system.

UKIP aren’t looking to stop immigrants accessing urgent medical care from the NHS but non-essential medical care and welfare would only be accessible after living, working and paying tax in the UK for five years.  Actually, I don’t think that’s asking too much and it rather mirrors my own thoughts on the subject.

UKIP have also put pledges into their manifesto on mental health spending and trying to focus treatment on both the physical health and mental wellbeing and to do so UKIP pledge to “increase mental health funding by £170 million annually, phasing this in through the first two years of the next parliament”.  I couldn’t tell you if that is nearly enough to cover the shortfall between physical and mental health in the NHS but it’s a start.

Scrapping the Bedroom Tax and continuing to pay Housing Benefit to under-25s will go a long way to easing some of the anxiety around that subject and UKIP pledge to “Give tenants the right to request Housing Benefit is paid direct to their landlords, whatever benefit scheme they are on” which has also been a source of concern to some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

There is so much more to cover but I’m aware that this is already a very long piece and I don’t really think I’ve been able to cover UKIP’s manifesto in the way that would do it justice, given what I’ve read.  However, if your interest has been peaked, why not look up the UKIP manifesto for yourself?

My problem with the UKIP position is the insistence on leaving the EU and, in a way, I think the Tories are right in that there is a need for a referendum on the issue but we can only make an informed decision on whether to leave the EU or stay if we are given the facts – what will the financial implications be of leaving?  What would the implications be of staying?  Can the UK maintain a good relationship with the EU if we left?  If not, how would that impact on our economy?

The issue facing us regarding the EU is that all the voters get is bickering and opinion what we need is the simple facts and, if UKIP were willing to consider giving those facts to us before a decision is made, that might just tip the balance in their favour on polling day.

So that’s almost it but, remember, most party manifestos are nothing but lies to tempt you to vote for a party so, whoever gets in, try to hold them to account or the democratic process just disappears.

I’ll wrap this up with one simple sentiment – go out and vote but do so with at least some idea of what you’re voting for so you can make the right choice for the country.

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