And so, in the spirit of leaving things to the last moment, we come to Labour, the incumbent party and the one whose manifesto gave me by far the biggest headache. Part of this was the content, which I'll get onto shortly. It's by far the most bloated of the three manifestos*, and seems to appear in at least three different versions on Labour's official site, each with a slightly different emphasis. Accordingly, I've focused only on the main points contained within their online manifesto - consequently, there's less points listed below than for the Lib Dems or the Tories. However, hopefully what's here is general enough to provide a good idea about how Labour intend to continue running affairs if voted back into power.
Much like the Conservatives, Labour's manifesto is jam-packed full of expensive initiatives at a time when the country is drowning in a sea of debt and even frontline services are under threat. Unlike Cameron's party, however, they have justified this by arguing that it's most important to support the economy now and introduce austerity measures only when it's clear the market is recovering. Labour has made by far the weakest proposal to cut the deficit - only proposing to halve it by 2014. There seems to be no recognition that if someone is suffering from arterial bleeding, the correct response is not to 'negotiate consensus to reduce the flow by 50%'. They also share with the Tories an odd turn of phrase regarding banking reform - the Conservatives want a Big Society Bank, whilst Labour is even more explicit with a network of 'People's Banks' based on an expansion of the financial services delivered through the post office. The actual goals of these entities are suspiciously nebulous, but will be obligated to 'serve every community'.
Now it's election time, Labour have suddenly identified £950m in 'back office functions' and £500m in quangos and central budgets that could be cut. However, Labour have already spent most of these savings via the long-term benefits they want to introduce, primarily in healthcare - including a National Care Service offering free care in the home and subsidised residential care, help for ten million pensioners, one-to-one nursing for all cancer patients and a massive expansion of diagnostic testing on the NHS. It's also evident that Labour sees private care as necessary to pick up the slack - one pledge affirms the right of patients to cancer test results within one week of referral and a (decidedly unambitious) maximum 18 weeks' wait or an offer of free private care. Citizens will also have the 'right in law to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality at NHS costs' for appointments. Unfortunately, as far as I can see this is basically just the NHS. Also adding to the burden on businesses is a commitment to even more paid leave - including a 'Father's Month' to be introduced.
They've also made a huge commitment to spending on education - including Sure Start, 16-19 learning, and free childcare. Labour is sticking to its guns on defending its record on education since 1997 - even though the vast majority of public opinion is that its heavy-handed approach to setting targets, centralising the curriculum, and limiting the powers of headteachers has done vastly more harm than good. According to the Labour manifesto, half of all schools were below the basic minimum standard in 1997, whereas now only one in every twelve schools falls into this category. However, its is conspicuously silent on the accusations of 'dumbing down' that have plagued the administration. Similarly they claim that 'teachers (now) have the status and respect they deserve', a distinctly dubious claim given that Labour policies have tended to strip away their ability to maintain discipline - most recently with the absurd proposal that students should be able to rate their teacher by text message during classes.
Labour has promised to get tough on layabouts claiming benefits - young people out of work for six months are to be given a job 'or training place' and benefits cut at 10 months. For everyone else there's a max of 2 years out of work before a job is guaranteed and benefits disappear. More and better apprenticeships and improved vocational education are promised, but as with the Conservatives Labour also wants ever more young people in higher education - with a goal of 75% ultimately continuing after 18, a figure which is not even remotely likely to materialise, especially given that in other news Labour has planned to remove the caps on tuition fees.
Of course Labour still has a 'democratic and accountable Second Chamber' on their wishlist - something one might remember as having been one of their priorities in 1997. Still, maybe they'll have more luck now both the other mainstream parties have followed their lead. Even their ambition to 'chart a course' to a written Constitution might seem more plausible now all three parties embrace some sort of constitution or bill of rights with popular input. Consensus too, they may find on their plans for a vote in Parliament on reducing the voting age to 16. No mainstream party currently opposes these apparent inevitabilities, which begs the question exactly how a democratic reform can be justified without a genuine popular mandate.
Some of the proposals contained within the Labour manifesto are simply hare-brained, examples of populism gone to seed. Consider their plan to support parents of young children from 2012 with the Toddler Tax Credit. At just £4 a week it's difficult to see how it could significantly help towards the upkeep of a toddler - it's not enough to feed them, certainly not enough to buy nappies... Or what about Supporters Trusts, a brilliant new scheme to enable communities to buy stakes on their local football clubs? But best of all is Community Payback, a truly demented policy that only serves to persuade me that whoever wrote this section of the Manifesto watches too much Big Brother. Under this concept, 'the community' would gain the right to vote on the work they want to see prisoners doing. Presumably one of the options will be 'fight to the death in the Thunderdome'. Seriously, wasn't this the plot to a mediocre sci-fi movie?
Labour's solution to the immigration crisis is an 'Australian points-based system' - which presumably works only if you actually know the person is in the country in the first place. It seems that Labour will attempt to continue to straddle Atlantic and European relationships, desiring to 'Lead the agenda for an outward-facing European Union' whilst simultaneously making a grandiose call for 'reform' of the UN, international financial institutions, the G8, G20 and NATO. Whew. And on top of that, the herculean task of 'protection of post offices and pubs' (but haven't we heard that before somewhere?). Labour's defence policy seems a little lacklustre - its most stirring statement: 'Use our international reach to build security and stability ... tackling climate change.' I await news that all troops in Afghanistan are to be equipped with ice-core samplers.
Yet there are things to like about the Labour manifesto. The independence and funding of the BBC are to be upheld, with more lottery funding for arts, sports and culture after 2012. Young people are to be given improved citizenship education (but what will they be taught?), whilst a statutory register of lobbyists will be implemented, banning MPs from working for lobbying companies and requiring them to seek approval for paid outside appointments. Less positive from the perspective of private property but no less high-minded is the suggestion that consent from 2/3rds of shareholders will be required in corporate takeovers to encourage long-term commitment to corporate growth. The only reservation whilst reading these points is - will Labour actually deliver, or will they break these promises like the promises made in their 1997, 2001, and 2005 manifestos? Perhaps seeing themselves in third place - or even further down, below UKIP and the Greens in some constituencies - has made them rediscover their principles. But do they deserve another chance?
Ultimately, even if Labour comes third in the popular vote, they're still likely to constitute the largest or second largest party. In the event of a hung Parliament, both Labour and the Conservatives will be seeking a coalition to build an overall majority. The general assumption has been that both sides will attempt to woo the Lib Dems as the only significant third party faction and Nick Clegg will be able to name his price for participation - proportional representation, the Freedom Bill, a rethink on Trident. But both parties have gone all-out in the lead-up to the election to persuade would-be Lib Dem voters that the party is likely to side with the other major player, as well as savagely attacking Lib Dem policies, even where they overlap with their own. With both major parties so dedicated to maintaining the bilateral status quo, are we being mislead when the media refuses to even mention the possibility of a LabCon coalition? Such a 'nightmare ticket' would have the strength to lock down politics until normality reasserts itself, and perhaps the two rivals would find more to like in each other's manifestos than they previously imagined. It would also be a de facto totalitarian state. Maybe it's time we started voting for the policies we want rather than allowing ourselves to be manipulated by the politics of fear.
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Realise government stakes in publically controlled banks and introduce a new global levy to reform banking rules.
UK Finance for Growth - raise £4 billion (through private backers?) to provide capital for growing businesses.
Create one million more skilled jobs.
Modernised infrastructure - High Speed Rail, Green investment bank (?), broadband access guarantee for all.
200,000 jobs through Future Jobs Fund
Young people out of work for six months given a job 'or training place' and benefits cut at 10 months.
Benefit reform - max of 2 years out of work before job guaranteed and benefits disappear (workable?).
More advanced apprenticeships and Skills Accounts for workers to upgrade skills.
Clampdown on interest rates for doorstep and payday loans.
Up to 1,000 secondary schools part of an accredited schools group by 2015.
Claim that since 1997 schools below the basic minimum standard have gone from 1/2 to 1/12 (but has the standard changed?)
Claim that 100,000 more children leave primary school each year 'secure in reading, writing and maths'.
Claim 'teachers (now) have the status and respect they deserve' - dubious!
Will save £950m through efficiency in back office functions and £500m through cutting quangos and central budgets.
More and better apprenticeships, improved vocational education.
Routine check-ups for over-40s and expansion of diagnostic testing.
One-to-one dedicated nursing for all cancer patients and more care at home (but how will this be funded?)
Vague intimations that people will have a right to a GP in their area open at evenings and weekends.
Claim that 15 years ago 'the very existence of the NHS was in doubt'.
Tougher in ensuring value for money on the NHS - patients as active partners.
End to default retirement at 65 - 'enabling more people to decide for themselves' (hmm).
Re-establish link between Basic State Pension and earnings from 2012 + help for ten million.
Maintain funding on police and PCSO numbers, ensuring they spend 80% of their time on the beat.
Australian-style points-based immigration system, requiring newcomers to earn citizenship.
Claims crime down by more than 1/3, violent crime down by 40%+, risk of being a victim lowest since 1981.
'Golden decade of sport' using 2012 Olympics for national renewal.
More independence for major museums and galleries - more lottery funding for arts, sports & culture after 2012.
The 'independence' of the BBC upheld
Digital and broadband infrastructure.
Improved citizenship education for young people.
Statutory register of lobbyists - MPs banned from working for lobbying companies and required to seek approval for paid outside appointments.
Stronger local government, increased local democratic scrutiny of services.
Strategic Defence Review + more support for troops and veterans.
Affirm the drive to achieve the Millenium Development Goals for sustainable growth and combating policy.
Support the recovery now and halve the deficit by 2014 - and continue hemorrhaging money for years.
Encouraging long-term commitment to sustainable company growth by requiring 2/3rds of shareholders in corporate takeovers (private property?).
No stamp duty for first-time buyers on homes below £250,000 for two years paid by 5% rate on houses more than £1 million (eh?)
A vaguely defined 'People's Bank' - banks obligated to 'serve every community'.
More spending on Sure Start, schools, 16-19 learning and free childcare (and this money is coming from ...?)
Guarantee of one-to-one and small-group tuition for every child falling behind & a personal tutor in secondary school
Every young person guaranteed education/training until 18 - 75% to go onto higher education.
NHS - right to cancer test results within one week of referral and a maximum 18 week's (!) wait for treatment or offer of private care.
'Right in law to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality at NHS costs' for appointments. So basically the NHS?
'More services available on the high-street, personal care plans and rights to individual budgets'. Sure.
Access to psychological therapy on the NHS (I disagree - all NHS treatments must be proven effective in double-blind studies)
More paid leave - a 'Father's Month' to be introduced
Toddler Tax Credit of £4 a week (...) to be introduced from 2012 to support parents of young children.
National Care Service - free care in the home + a cap on the costs of residential care (this sounds alarmingly expensive)
Government Personal Pension Accounts to be introduced.
Police performance to be improved through 'online police report cards' and allowing failing forces to be taken over by better ones.
Repeat victims of anti-social behaviour will be able to claim compensation from the police or council 'who let them down'.
'Community Payback' - community will gain the right to vote on the work prisoners do (what the bleep).
Supporters Trusts enable communities to buy stakes in their football clubs (seriously?)
Protection of post offices and pubs - well, they haven't got around to it yet.
Citizens can call for a referenda to move to the Alternative Vote for election to the House of Commons.
A 'democratic and accountable Second Chamber'
Vote in Parliament on reducing the voting age to 16.
Parliaments to sit for a fixed term.
An All-Party Commission to 'chart a course' to a written Constitution.
'Use our international reach to build security and stability ... tackling climate change.' Defence policy at its best...
'Lead the agenda for an outward-facing European Union'
'Reform' the UN, international financial institutions, the G8 and G20 and NATO. Whut.
* As one might expect given that Labour have to defend their performance over the past 13 years as well as lay out their plans for the future.