“To govern is to choose” – The Conservative Party Manifesto

18th May 2017

To govern is to choose. There’s lots to welcome in the Conservative manifesto, including backing for our campaign for a successor to European structural funds. But we need more investment and reform for ordinary working families to be better off by 2022.

Since Theresa May became Prime Minister she has spoken a lot about ordinary working families, after an initial dalliance with the term just about managing. The talk has been about how best to help those on low to middle incomes, partly reflecting a diagnosis that the Brexit vote was in part a reaction by people in this group to feeling that this was not a country that worked for everyone (to coin a phrase). And there’s also been lots of signals that Mrs May sees the State as a having a role to play in making things better – personal freedom and responsibility yes, but no rolling back of the State.

To date, though, this has been mainly talk and signals, with the Brexit process taking most of the Government’s energy. This manifesto is Theresa May’s chance to flesh out what she means and, if the polls are to be believed, a programme of government for the next five years and perhaps more.

So, what to make of it?

Further Education and skills

I’m delighted to see a commitment to a Shared Prosperity Fund, replacing European Structural Funds when we leave the EU. This is a clear win for our #FutureESF campaign, backed by so many across the sector. We’ll be pushing hard on the detail of this – it should be devolved, flexible, and simple.

There’s also a number of other commitments we called for in our manifesto, including:

  • Retaining the target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, but focusing on quality beyond that and with a pledge for discounted travel for apprentices;
  • Continuing reform of technical education, as set out in the post-16 Skills Plan; and
  • Helping 1 million more disabled people into work over 10 years, halving the gap

Slightly more surprising is a new National Retraining Programme for those in work, with training paid for by Government and firms reclaiming wage costs from the Apprenticeship Levy. We’ve argued that not all workforce training is apprenticeships, so recognition of that is welcome. But this sounds remarkably like Train to Gain, closed down by the Coalition Government due to value for money concerns.

Overall, this is all pretty sensible stuff. But I’d like to have seen more of a commitment on at least protecting the Adult Education Budget and promoting lifelong learning more widely and for all age groups.

Work

Theresa May promised to use Brexit to extend (rather than roll back) workers rights and she has a 12 point plan to do it. (It’s worth noting that I’m not sure there’s any of these we couldn’t do while in the EU). High up the list are an extension of rights to the growing numbers of people who are self-employed, something the Prime Minister has asked former Labour advisor Matthew Taylor to look at. The devil is always in the detail, but the commitment looks broadly sensible.

There’s more to do to ensure self-employed people can access learning and training (you can’t apprentice yourself…). There’s no mention of the likely rise in National Insurance that will surely be introduced to match these rights – resurrecting the rise the Chancellor was forced to abandon in Budget 2017 as it would have breached 2015 manifesto commitments. And there has been criticism that previous rises in employment tribunal fees may lock people out of justice. The Prime Minister will need to address this concern and explain how people will access their new rights.

Like the Labour manifesto, there’s disappointingly little mention of employment programmes or how to increase employment. The commitment to helping 1 million more disabled people into work over 10 years is welcome, but we need a plan and investment for how to do this. We set out our plans here. Proposed rises in the National Minimum Wage to a likely £9 per hour are welcome but will not, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have shown, compensate for reductions to in-work benefits and other changes (the commitment to ‘no further radical welfare reform’ is welcome, but we should reverse some of the cuts to in-work benefits made through Universal Credit).

Overall, it is good to see the Conservatives focus so clearly on people on low to middle incomes. Many of the answers are in the right direction: making sure employment rights reflect modern employment practices, focusing on technical education and apprenticeships, a benefit system that makes work pay. But the legacy of previous cuts, whether necessary or not, to Further Education and benefits, risk holding back this ambition.

There’s lots in the manifesto, but lots more to debate after the election (should the Conservatives win) too. Should cuts in low paid workers National Insurance be a higher priority than further cuts to business tax? How do we make sure everyone who can has the chance to work? How do we boost total investment in learning? To govern is to choose.