28 November 2019
A flawed document.
By John Watson
The Labour Party’s manifesto is 107 pages long and amounts to a list. The authors have apparently thought of everything which doesn’t work well in our society, mentioned it and said that they will deal with it. Sometimes it is a new institution. Sometimes it is more money. Sometimes it is by penalising tax avoiders, bad landlords, the rich, or people like that. Well, I suppose that it is a privilege of being the opposition, that you have plenty of targets at which you can point and that is particularly so when the government has had to cut back on expenditure in order to deal with high levels of national debt. Look at all the areas in which the government would like to have spent money but could not afford to. Put them in your list. Say you will spend the money. Job done. The danger is of course that your document becomes so aspirational that people just ignore it. A much shorter document identifying areas where things really can be improved would have been far more useful.
Perhaps though it would not have served its electoral purpose or perhaps there is something in Nigel Farage’s comment that a manifesto is simply a collection of lies. Let’s test some passages and see how we get on.
The first passage is a comments about the NHS made by Jeremy Corbyn at page 8:
Labour will give the NHS the funding it needs, end privatisation, and never let our health service be up for grabs in any trade negotiation.
What exactly does that mean? No, I don’t mean the bit about funding which is surely just an attempt to outbid the other parties in the hope that this will somehow obtain the respect or affection of the electorate. It is the reference to privatisation and trade negotiations which is interesting, particularly the suggestion that Mr Johnson is out to sell the NHS to the US, an allegation which has been prominent in Labour’s campaign. Sell the NHS? How? What would this devious clause which, but for the vigilance of Labour might be included in a trade agreements with the US, actually do?
Clearly it cannot seriously be suggested that we are going to send NHS patients to the US for their treatment so the issue must be one of procurement. At the moment the NHS buys drugs, services and equipment from all round the world and it has carefully designed systems to ensure that the terms on which it does so reflect its weight in the market – i.e. that the price paid reflects the enormous quantities which it purchases. That means that US drugs are often bought by the NHS at a price below that at which they would be bought by an American hospital.
Is this the issue which might be addressed in a trade agreement? If so there would have to be a clause saying that the NHS should pay the American pharmaceutical companies more for its drugs than the market requires and such a clause would have a direct impact on NHS funding and thus on the British Exchequer. Is it really likely that the Government would voluntary hobble its finances in this way? Surely not, unless an improbably large price was paid for it. No wonder that Mr Johnson is saying that the Government has no intention of allowing anything of the sort.
Let’s go on then to the bit about “privatisation”. Presumably the idea here is that everyone who does work for the NHS should be on the NHS payroll and not employed by companies providing a service. It is hard to take it at face value. Quite apart from the services of its medical staff, the NHS acquires goods and services of many different sorts. It needs people to design and run its computers. It needs people to provide food. It needs people to clean its hospitals and run its car parks. Surely it is not being suggested that all these people should be employed directly? Cost conscious city institutions and multinational companies outsource much of this stuff because they receive better value. Is the management of the NHS so superb that in their case the logic is the other way round?
So, if it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean? Are there certain services that will be earmarked for NHS staff only even though they would be more economically provided by someone else – like a recreation of the Doc Labour Scheme of the 1970s? That makes no sense. The NHS should buy in services from private contractors where that makes commercial sense and should not do so when it doesn’t. What then is this hex on privatisation meant to mean?
I found this question so baffling that I decided to test the manifesto as a whole by looking for statements in an area which I knew well, the area of taxation. Ah, yes, there it is at page 30;
We will launch the biggest ever crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion and reform the inefficient system of tax reliefs.
No doubt tax reliefs could be made more efficient but “launch the biggest ever crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion?” Isn’t that exactly what government and HMRC have been doing with the introduction of a general anti avoidance rule in 2013, inclusion of targeted anti avoidance rules with every relief, the introduction of accelerated payment notices and follower notices in Finance Act 2014 to prevent taxpayers gaining cash flow from tax avoidance, a new regime to tackle serial tax avoidance with penalties and the publication of names, new rules to avoid the shifting of corporate profits abroad if the OECD does not tackle the issue. It is hard to see that much more could have been done and Labour must know that. Still, their manifesto is clearly intended to imply that the government has been dilatory or worse and that only they can be trusted on the issue.
Once you become aware that a document is unsound on the areas you know about, it behoves you to look at it carefully and the eye is drawn to the following passage on page 44:
“We will review the Prevent programme to assess both effectiveness and potential to alienate communities and consider alternatives including safeguarding programmes to protect those vulnerable to the recruitment propaganda and ideologies of the far-right and others who promote terror as a political strategy.”
All strategies need to be kept under review but why the emphasis on the far right and why is nothing said about Islamic extremism? Could it be that Labour gets no votes from the far right but does not want to scare off Islamic voters? There is nothing said about anti-semitism either for that matter.
One should not be too hard about all this. Manifestos are documents produced in the heat of battle and are of course designed to win that battle. The sense is more of opportunity lost. There are plenty of things which really need reform and the wealth gap in our society is too great. Here was an opportunity to lay out a modern sensible program which, even if it did not win the election, would have moved the goalposts of debate. It has been wasted.