Given the dramatic losses suffered by the Liberal Democrats in 2015, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election was always going to place the party at a substantial disadvantage.
Today’s publication of the Liberal Democrat manifesto – Changing Britain’s Future – reflects the position the party currently finds itself in. Unusually, the manifesto acknowledges that the ‘Conservative Party is on course to win this election’ with Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, placing the blame for this on the ‘complete absence of real opposition from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party’. Farron’s pitch is for the Liberal Democrats to become the official opposition and ensure May’s government doesn’t proceed ‘unchecked’.
The target demographic of the Liberal Democrat campaign and manifesto is clear – moderate Labour voters who feel their voice has been lost as Corbyn has dragged the party leftwards. The Liberal Democrat priority is to capture Labour support and replace them as main party of the centre-left.
This is evident in the headline pledge to hold a second referendum on EU membership once a deal has been struck on the precise Brexit package. It is a clear pitch to Labour voters unhappy with Corbyn’s perceived lacklustre approach to campaigning for Remain during last year’s EU referendum. Equally, health and education feature prominently in the manifesto, including commitments to improve pay for public sector workers. This is very much traditional Labour territory but Farron clearly believes it is fertile ground for the Liberal Democrats to begin rebuilding after their devastation at the last election.
A party with nine seats at Westminster, dealing with the challenge of a snap election, will face an uphill task to make political inroads. Farron’s calculation is that the ground vacated by Corbyn’s Labour represents the Liberal Democrats best hope of a comeback. We can expect Farron to consistently target wavering voters of the centre-left over the next few weeks, arguing that he best speaks for them.
Key manifesto commitments
Among the main commitments contained in Liberal Democrat manifesto are:
• A reaffirmation of the belief that ‘Britain’s relationship with its neighbours is stronger as part of the EU’.
• Once Brexit negotiations have concluded the Liberal Democrats will ‘put that deal to a vote of the British people in a referendum, with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper’.
• Committing to fight a ‘hard Brexit’ in Parliament.
Taxation and Public Finances
• Increase income tax by 1p in the pound to ‘give the NHS and social care services the cash injection they need’.
• A long-term aim of raising the employee National Insurance Contribution threshold to the income tax threshold.
• Reversing a number of ‘unfair’ Conservative tax cuts including Corporation Tax, Capital Gains Tax, and the Marriage Allowance.
• Committing to eliminate the deficit in day-to-day (i.e. revenue) spending by 2020.
Health and Social Care
• An income tax increase to raise £6bn ringfenced for health and social care.
• Mental health care with waiting times and standards to match those in physical health care. Continuing to ‘fight for parity of esteem’.
• A ‘longer term objective’ of ‘bringing together NHS and social care into one seamless service. In particular, the pooling of budgets in every area by 2020.
• Establishment of a statutory budget monitoring agency – modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility – which will report every three years on how much money the health and social care system needs.
• Supporting the health and social care workforce by guaranteeing the rights of all EU nationals working in the UK and ending the public sector pay freeze for NHS workers.
• Creating a ‘national workforce strategy’ ensuring that we never again experience a shortage in the numbers of GPs, hospital doctors, nurses’ and other professionals.
• Finishing the job of ‘implementing a cap on the cost of social care’.
• Delivering easy access to GPs – expanding evening and weekend appointments, whilst improving ‘national support’ to GPs practices and ‘preventing mass practice closures’.
• Commitment to invest ‘nearly £7bn in our children’s education’, increasing school budgets and the Pupil Premium.
• Oppose any attempt to introduce new selective schools.
• Reverse ‘all cuts to front-line school and college budget, protecting per-pupil funding in real terms’.
• End the 1% cap on teacher pay rises.
• Allow Ofsted to inspect both local authorities and academy chains.
• Ensure ‘new schools are built in areas where there is a need for new school places’.
• In terms of higher education participation, reinstate ‘maintenance grants for the poorest students, ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people’.
• Undertake a review of higher education finance in the next parliament.
• Double the number of businesses that hire apprentices and extend apprenticeships to new sectors of the economy – including the creative and digital industries.
• Invest a £100bn package of additional infrastructure investment.
• Commitment to completing HS2; delivering Crossrail 2 and rail electrification.
• Delivering a programme of ‘hyper-fast, fibre-optic broadband across the UK’.
• Facilitating greater private investment into renewable energy.
• £5bn initial capital for a new British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank.
Work and Welfare
• Uprate working-age benefits in line with inflation.
• Scrap the ‘bedroom tax’.
• Scrap the Work Capability Assessment.
• Maintain the pension ‘triple-lock’.
• Introduce a Young Persons Bus Discount Card for those aged 16 to 21.
• Investment in housing to deliver 300,000 homes a year by 2022.
• Deliver 10 new garden cities.
• End the Voluntary Right to Buy for housing associations.
• Ensure Local Plans take account of the next 15 years of local housing need.
• Lift borrowing caps on local authorities and increase borrowing caps of housing associations.
• Deliver a Rent to Own product – giving tenants an increasing stake in their home with a view to full ownerships after 30 years.
• Stop developers advertising abroad before doing so in the UK.
• Give tenants ‘first refusal’ to buy homes they are renting if the landlord is looking to sell the property.
Energy and the Environment
• Implement a Green Transport Act and an Air Quality Plan that focuses on banning the sale of diesel cars by 2025.
• Extend ultra-low emission zones into 10 more towns and cities.
• Legislate for a Zero-Carbon Britain Act putting in place legally binding limits to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2040 and to zero by 2050.
• Expand renewable energy so that 60% of electricity comes for renewables by 2030.
• Pass a Green Buildings Act with the long-term ambition of every home in England reaching an energy rating of Band C by 2035.