Labour, Conservatives shift to interventionism but neither offers Brexit negotiation strategy
With less than three weeks left before Britain's general election on June 8, the country's main parties have just unveiled their manifestos.
Curiously, the critical and most immediate issues facing Britain remain largely unaddressed in these electoral pledges; neither Prime Minister Theresa May's ruling Conservatives nor the main opposition Labour Party says much in their manifestos about the strategy Britain should adopt in negotiating its departure from the European Union, or how the country's economy could prosper outside the EU.
Instead, Britain's party manifestos concentrate on attracting voters mistrustful of big business and apprehensive about the survival of their extensive and generous welfare systems.
The result is that electoral manifestos now resemble supermarket shopping lists: a long string of items, with no attempt to outline a vision about the future.
With all opinion polls indicating that the Conservatives will be re-elected with a big overall majority on June 8, their manifesto attracted most scrutiny.
Yet, nowhere in the 80-page document, the second-longest manifesto in Conservative history, are there any details about how Mrs May proposes to handle Brexit - Britain's process of separation from the EU.
The document says Britain wants to enter Brexit negotiations in a "spirit of sincere cooperation".
But apart from repeating cliches, such as "we will leave the European Union and take control of our money, take control of our borders, take control of our laws", Prime Minister May is simply asking the electorate to vote for her because that in itself would determine her negotiating stance.
• University fees to be abolished
• Top tax rate at 45 per cent for high earners
• Nationalise most utilities
• No immigration caps
• State pensions proofed against inflation
• Universities can charge top rate fees but must help pay for schools
• Top tax rate at 40 per cent for high earners
• Cap on utility charges, particularly electricity
• Cap on 100,000 immigrants per year
• State pension revenue not protected
"Every vote for me and my team is a vote that will strengthen my hand in those Brexit negotiations," she told an electoral rally.
Labour offers no specifics, either. Should it come to power, Britain's main opposition party nebulously promises to "build a close new relationship with the EU" by prioritising jobs and workers' rights, but what that actually means remains unexplained.
The Liberal Democrats, Britain's smaller opposition party, is the only one to be specific on Europe: They promise to hold a second referendum to confirm whether the country wants to leave the EU. But according to opinion polls, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to get more than 5 per cent of seats.
Instead, the political battleground between the main parties remains the economy where, curiously, both Labour and the traditionally centre-right Conservatives appear to be shifting towards a more left-wing, interventionist agenda.
The trend is clearest with Labour, now run by Mr Jeremy Corbyn, a far-left activist. The party promises to renationalise railways, the post office, electricity and water companies. It also plans to introduce a punitive income tax rate of 45 per cent for those earning more than £80,000 (S$144,000), expand free childcare for working families and eliminate tuition fees at universities - currently just under £10,000 a year for domestic students.
True to their right-wing heritage, Britain's Conservatives go in the opposite direction of advocating less government intervention; they want to reduce personal taxation and the burden of corporations. The Conservative manifesto also contains an interesting innovation: Voters could initiate referendums against the local authorities that raise their taxes too steeply.
Yet, in a break with tradition, the Conservatives are also coming down hard on utility companies, with caps on the prices they charge their customers, and on most corporations awarding their executives big salaries. Both conform to Mrs May's strategy of attracting working class voters who used to be Labour supporters.
But the biggest surprises from the Conservatives are in education and welfare. Mrs May's party wants to reintroduce streaming in education, with more successful pupils allowed to go to more selective schools. The Prime Minister also wants universities to begin sponsoring secondary education; universities which wish to charge top fees for their courses will also have to set aside money to fund schools.
Selection is also the main theme of welfare provision. Most services will be means-tested. Any Briton with assets over £100,000 - literally anyone who owns a home - would pay for old-age care, should that be required, although payments could be deferred. And old-age state pensions will no longer enjoy protection from inflation.
None of these measures is popular. Yet, Prime Minister May is probably calculating that with her party in the lead, it is the moment for her to face Britons with the reality of a more uncertain economic future.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'UK's major parties swing left in election manifestos'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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