The next Labour/SNP/Lib Dem government (and The 12 Days of Christmas)

A general election in the next 12 or 24 months looks likely. Sadly, politics has been dominated and poisoned by Brexit, and the next election may be no exception. But – as it’s Christmas – here’s a more optimistic reminder that public policy can (one day) be about more than Brexit.

Specifically, this blog looks at the overlap between Labour, SNP and Lib Dem policy. Labour would need to gain at least 50 seats to win the narrowest of majorities, and are (at best) only level-pegging in the polls. But the Conservatives would only need to lose a small number of very marginal seats to give an Orange, Red, Yellow majority*. So such an alliance is one of the more likely options in the next parliament. It’s also frankly more interesting to imagine than a continuation of Conservative government and, what’s more, previous opposition manifestos seem less likely to be overhauled than the Conservatives’ 2017 offer. (* Though the Conservatives would need to lose around 30 English seats to lose their veto over England-only laws, which may prove important.)

Of course, relationships between (not to mention within) Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems would not be without acrimony, and a formal coalition might be unwanted by all. But even considering only the policies with the most overlap and least need for compromise, this blog shows there is enough in common to deliver substantial change through at least a couple of Queen’s (or King’s?) Speeches and Budgets. And there is a real need for every party to show a country tired of Brexit, austerity and uncertainty that politics can get good things done. After 3 years of crawling together through Brexit sewage and the Trump swamp, here’s a hopeful vision of a cross-party agenda to ponder over the 12 Days of Christmas.

1) Stronger green targets and no fracking

Green policies are where politics would be focused in a sane world (not least for the sake of the partridges and pear trees). All 3 parties have said they would raise the ambition of climate targets for 2050 (something the Committee on Climate Change has been asked by the government to report back on soon).

The same Committee has warned that “the UK is not on course to meet the legally binding fourth (2023-2027) and fifth (2028-2032) carbon budgets”, so moving to an even more ambitious path is going to require a substantial policy agenda. But it’s reassuring that Labour do have a plan for 2030, and its support for renewables is certainly one that the Lib Dems would support. All 3 would put a stop to fracking.

Labour: “A Labour government will back a target for net zero emissions by 2050” … “60% of all the non-transport electricity and heat demand across the UK will be supplied by means that are either renewable or low-carbon” by 2030 (or in 12 years) … “Ban fracking”

SNP: Introduced a Scottish Climate Change Bill to “increase the 2050 target to 90%” … “The Scottish Government has ensured that fracking cannot and will not take place in Scotland”

Lib Dems: “Pass a Zero-Carbon Britain Act to set new legally binding targets to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2040 and to zero by 2050” … “Expand renewable energy, aiming to generate 60% of electricity from renewables by 2030” … “Oppose ‘fracking’”

2) Investment in home insulation and planting trees

Appropriately for Christmas, 2 key areas where new effort is needed to meet the targets above are warmer homes and more trees. Improving the energy efficiency of housing is key to any climate targets, and the government has set out some goals (“We want all fuel poor homes to be upgraded to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C by 2030 and our aspiration is for as many homes as possible to be EPC Band C by 2035”) but it’s not clear yet how these would be achieved. The Lib Dems and Labour both want 4 million homes improved in the next parliament (with Labour having earmarked some serious money for this), and a zero carbon standard introduced for new homes.

Both parties have also committed to planting more trees, though here the ambition seems far below the 27,000 hectares per year (0.7 Isles of Wight per year, or perhaps 50 million trees per year) that’s needed to hit existing carbon targets according to the Committee on Climate Change. This is an area where the current government is failing badly (only 6,500 hectares were planted in 2016-17, less than in 2011 to 2015), but other parties risk doing little better without greater ambition, detailed plans and funding.

Labour: “Upgrade 4 million homes to EPC band C in our first term, investing £2.3bn per year to provide financial support for households to insulate their homes” … “Ensure all council and housing associations reach EPC band C” … “Tighten regulation of privately rented homes, blocking poorly insulated homes from being rented out” … “Introduce a zero carbon homes standard for new-build homes as soon as possible” … “Initiate a large tree planting programme”

SNP: Scotland is working on its own EPC targets (currently accused of being unambitious) but it is doing much better than England and Wales at tree planting

Lib Dems: “Pass a new Green Buildings Act to set new energy-efficiency targets, including a long-term ambition for every home in England to reach at least an energy rating of Band C by 2035” … “Ensure that at least four million homes are made highly energy efficient (Band C) by 2022, with priority given to fuel-poor households” … “Restore the zero-carbon standard for new homes […], increasing the standard steadily and extending it to non-domestic buildings by 2022” … “Reverse the current sharp decline in the rate of woodland creation by aiming to plant a tree for every UK citizen over the next 10 years”

3) Free school meals for all primary school children

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, free school meals… Universal meals were piloted under Labour, and introduced for Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 by the Lib Dems. Both parties are now committed to universal free school meals throughout primary school. That would ensure kids eat relatively healthy food; help parents with the costs of children; remove any stigma from targeted free school meals; and remove the disincentive to work that comes from only giving them to families earning less than £7,400.

Labour: “Introduce free school meals for all primary school children”

SNP: <Devolved> Not policy, but did introduce for Primary 1 to 3 to match England (and would welcome the knock-on funding boost for Scotland through the Barnett formula)

Lib Dems: “Extend free school meals to all children in primary education and promote school breakfast clubs”

4) At least doubling paid paternity leave

The UK does too little to support parents, and the default assumption is that mothers will simply reduce their employment as much as needed. But periods of part-time work or no work are a barrier to wage progression and a key cause of later gender pay gaps. More fundamentally, the law should not be so biased as to give fathers 2 weeks of minimal-income leave and mothers 6 weeks of reasonable-income leave plus 33 weeks of minimal-income leave. Thankfully, all 3 parties have committed to increasing paternity leave.

Personally I think they should be aiming higher in terms of time (going beyond even 6 weeks), pay (beyond doubling, though not as far as mothers’ uncapped 90% of pay), and looking at requiring companies to reduce differentials between their maternity and paternity offers (or even aligning them). It would be great to see further policy innovation in this space.

Labour: “Double paid paternity leave to four weeks and increase paternity pay” … “move towards […] extending maternity pay to 12 months”

SNP: Party policy is now to “double statutory entitlement of paternity leave”

Lib Dems: “An additional month’s paid paternity leave”

5) Ending some tax breaks like the marriage tax allowance

So much for gold rings. All 3 parties would end the transferable tax allowance for married couples. That would raise over £1bn a year that could be used to help parents (see 3, 4, 9, 10). Given shared opposition to some Conservative tax cuts, it also seems likely that common ground could be found to raise more money from targeted tax rises on the richest: e.g. capital gains tax, inheritance tax, private school fees and private medical insurance.

Labour: “Reversing tax giveaways on Capital Gains Tax, Inheritance Tax, bank levy and scrapping the married persons’ tax allowance” … “VAT on private school fees” …  “increasing the tax on private medical insurance premiums”

SNP: “We will also support the reversal of the married couple’s allowance”

Lib Dems: “reverse a number of the Conservatives’ unfair and unjustified tax cuts” … “Abolish the marriage allowance, £1m IHT threshold, reverse CGT cuts”

6) A new Animal Welfare Act

In my view, the scale and depth of abuse of other sentient animals is probably the greatest moral failing of our age. And on some specific issues at least there is cross-party consensus. All 3 parties want to ban the use of animals in circuses. Both Labour and Lib Dems want to ban the caging of hens, and each party also has other animal welfare policies, though none explicitly mention geese-a-laying or maids-a-milking.

Labour: “End use of cages on British farms” … “Introduce phased ban on sow farrowing crates” … “Ban live exports for slaughter or fattening” … “Total ban on imports of Foie Gras” … “Mandatory labelling of meat” … “Ban intensive rearing of game birds for shooting” … “Increase maximum sentences for those convicted of animal cruelty”

SNP: Wild animals in circuses already banned in Scotland

Lib Dems: “Bring in a ban on caged hens” … “Prevent […] dehorning” … “Introduce stronger penalties for animal cruelty offences, increasing the maximum sentencing from six months to five years”

7) More money for schools, health, social care (and/or university)

This is a broad one, and will depend on the timing of the next election, the 2019 Spending Review and whether the government’s social care proposals ever see the light of day. But – in addition to free school meals (above) and childcare (below) – the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos both included some serious extra money for schools, health and social care, funded through tax rises. The government’s 5-year NHS funding plan and the end of the public sector pay rise cap have taken some of the wind out of the opposition’s sails, but I’d be surprised if the parties’ next manifestos concluded that no more money is needed for schools, health or social care.

Labour and the Lib Dems also both proposed reintroducing student maintenance grants and nursing bursaries, at a cost of £3bn a year, while Labour want to spend a further £9bn a year to abolish tuition fees – something the SNP would certainly approve of. Personally I don’t think these should be priorities compared to schools, health, social care or reversing benefit cuts (see 10), but the big picture is clearly that these parties are willing to raise taxes to pay for more public spending.

Labour: “In our first term, Labour will lay the foundations of a National Care Service for England. Our first urgent task will be to address the immediate funding crisis” … £6bn a year extra on schools (inc. free school meals), £5bn on health, £2bn on social care

SNP: “We will continue to call for increased health spending”

Lib Dems: “Reverse all cuts to front-line school and college budgets, protecting per-pupil funding in real terms” … “An immediate 1p rise on the basic, higher and additional rates of Income Tax to raise £6 billion additional revenue, which would be ringfenced to be spent only on NHS and social care services” … “In the longer term […] commission the development of a dedicated health and care tax on the basis of wide consultation, possibly based on a reform of National Insurance contributions” … “Establish a cross-party health and social care convention”

8) Reversing corporation tax cuts and raising top income tax rates

Of course, a lot of these policies would require funding, and scrapping the marriage tax allowance (5) would only make a small contribution. But there’s quite a bit of further overlap between the parties’ tax policies. All 3 have opposed corporation tax cuts, and are very likely to support a rate of 20% at least. Attitudes about income tax rates for high earners are more mixed, but there is common ground for some increases at least and I doubt any opposition to Labour’s proposals would be strongly held.

Labour: “Raising the headline [corporation tax] rate to […] 26%” … “Lowering the threshold for the 45p additional rate [of income tax] to £80k and reintroducing the 50p rate on earnings above £123k”

SNP: “SNP MPs will not support further reductions to Corporation Tax” … “We support an increase in the Additional Rate from 45p to 50p across the UK” (The top rate is 46% in Scotland, and the higher rate 41%)

Lib Dems: “Reverse […] the cutting of Corporation Tax from 20% to 17%” … “An immediate 1p rise on the basic, higher and additional rates of Income Tax”

9) More free universal childcare

Government support for childcare has gradually increased, but both Labour and the Lib Dems want to go further. Currently 30 hours are available for children age 3 and 4 with working parents, and 15 hours for some 2 year olds. Both parties instead want 30 hours to be available for all 2-4 year olds. Beyond that there are proposals for subsidised extra hours and perhaps more support for under-2s (as well as more paternity leave). So whether it’s 9 ladies dancing or 10 lords a-leaping, people won’t have to choose between employment and parenting.

Labour: “Labour will make 30 hours a week of free childcare available to all two, three and four year olds. And we will provide additional subsidised hours of childcare on top of the free 30-hour allowance, free for those on the lowest incomes and capped at £4 an hour for the rest.” … “Move towards making some childcare available for one year-olds”

SNP: <Devolved>

Lib Dems: “Provide 15 hours a week of free childcare to the parents of all two-year-olds in England. We will then prioritise 15 hours’ free childcare for all working parents in England with children aged between nine months and two years. […] long-term goal of 30 hours’ free childcare a week for all parents in England with children aged from two to four years, and all working parents from the end of paid parental leave to two years.”

10) Reversing cuts to benefits

After many years of cuts (and no increases), the state is doing much less to support people with the costs of children, disability or housing. Rising poverty is a testament to that. And outright destitution is visibly high too. Serious amounts will need to be spent to start reversing those trends and all 3 parties have recognised that, to varying degrees. (Note that all have proposed to boost Carer’s Allowance too.)

But the scale and nature of new benefit spending is still up for debate and will partly depend on when the next election comes. Will the benefits freeze be over already? How far advanced will the roll-out of UC be, and how will it be seen? How high will poverty rates be? And what will be affordable? Despite some government U-turns since the last election, manifestos will need to promise similar sums (£5-10bn) again.

Labour: Under review. Earmarked £4bn in last manifesto. And “Increase Carer’s Allowance by £11 to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance”

SNP: Have instituted child poverty goals for Scotland. “The SNP strongly opposes the cap that restricts Child Tax Credits to the first two children and the removal of the family element of Universal Credit” … “We will call for the end of the cash freeze that the Tories have imposed on many benefits” … And “increase Carer’s Allowance to the level of Jobseekers Allowance.”

Lib Dems: Under review. Earmarked £10bn in last manifesto.  And “Raise the amount people can earn before losing Carer’s Allowance from £110 to £150 a week, and reduce the number of hours’ care per week required to qualify.”

11) Borrowing to invest in infrastructure

Fiscal policy is not the hot topic it was pre-Brexit, but it matters a lot, and all 3 parties have very similar fiscal goals. All have said they are happy to borrow to invest in physical capital, and compared to the government’s stated intentions (though it’s not clear how serious those are) that would eventually free up tens of billions a year.

Labour and the Lib Dems have at least given the impression that they’d be willing to go big on infrastructure. That might mean a lot of money for rail improvements around and between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds especially; HS2; internet connectivity; a lot of new (zero carbon) housing where it’s most needed; and significant increases in R&D spending. These things are easier said than done, as every government shows, but given the level of rhetoric from each party it would be a shame if a new government didn’t follow through with some real commitments.

Labour: “At the same time as eliminating the current deficit, Labour will invest in our future, to ensure faster growth” … “We will take advantage of near-record low interest rates to create a National Transformation Fund that will invest £250 billion over ten years in upgrading our economy” “We will deliver universal superfast broadband availability by 2022” … “We will improve 4G coverage and invest to ensure all  urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage. On day one we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out ‘ultrafast’ (300Mbps) across the UK within the next decade” … “We will meet the OECD target of 3 per cent of GDP spent on research and development by 2030”.

SNP: “We will propose to achieve a current budget balance […] with net borrowing being used only for investment”

Lib Dems: “commit to eliminating the deficit in day-to-day spending” … “commit to a responsible and realistic £100 billion package of additional infrastructure investment” … “A programme of installing hyperfast, fibre-optic broadband across the UK” … “Our long-term goal is to double innovation and research spending across the economy”

12) Votes at 16

I don’t recall anything in the 12 Days of Christmas about 16 year olds a-voting, but these parties would be very likely to extend the franchise to ages 16 and 17. Unlike other constitutional change (like proportional representation) this is a common goal among them, as well as the Greens and Plaid, and Conservatives might even support the extension too if it looked likely.

For me, the strongest argument is that, with 5 year parliaments, the 18+ rule actually means people will be 18-22 when they can first vote in a general election – while 16+ means a 16-20 range. I personally didn’t get to vote in a general election until I was 22. It’s also easier to register young people when they’re in school/college than when many have upped sticks for temporary university accommodation – and once people start voting it’s often a habit that sticks for life.

Labour: “We will reduce the voting age to 16”

SNP: “SNP MPs will bring forward proposals to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds in all elections”

Lib Dems: “Introduce votes at 16 for all elections and referendums across the UK”

A Lib-Lab-SNP majority is only one possible election outcome, of course, and most likely Brexit will continue to crowd out all other political discussion for the foreseeable future. But the above is a reminder that there are policies beyond Brexit, and one day soon we might see some of them. For me at least, that’s a jolly thought at this uncertain time. Merry Christmas!

Orange, Red, Yellow (Mark Rothko, 1961)

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