The Liberal Democrats have launched their 2019 election manifesto, with the slogan Stop Brexit Build A Brighter Future. It sets out the polices the party aims to introduce should it win the election.
The full document runs to 96 pages and contains pledges on a variety of subjects, with Brexit and the NHS to the fore. But what are the promises that will grab the public’s attention, and, potentially win over voters on polling day, 12 December?
1. Stop Brexit
Article 50 would be revoked and Brexit cancelled.
There is no mistaking the Liberal Democrats’ central appeal to voters. The words “STOP BREXIT” appear in large capital letters on the front of the manifesto.
Uniquely among UK-wide parties, the Liberal Democrats are promising to revoke Article 50 immediately – and stop Britain leaving the EU without another referendum.
The pledge stands out from Labour, who would offer another vote, and the Conservatives, who are promising to leave the EU in January.
The Liberal Democrats believe the clarity of this approach won them votes during the European elections – and can be a vote-winner again.
It also underpins their plans to increase public spending – the Liberal Democrats say staying in the EU would deliver a £50bn “Remain bonus” to the economy – money that could be spent on public services.
2. A penny on income tax for the NHS
Raise £7bn a year over five years – a total of £35bn – to spend on the NHS and social care.
The Liberal Democrats’ one penny in the pound extra on income tax will, according to the manifesto, be ring-fenced to be spent on the NHS and social care.
But this is a vague concept and simply means the party has promised £7bn a year more for health and social care and identified how the revenue might be raised. It will be hard to track precisely how the money is spent.
Longer term the party wants to move to a dedicated Health and Care tax. This is called “hypothecation” and has been advocated in the past to reassure voters their money is key to public services.
The big problem is that in an economic downturn the tax receipts might fall, and, if so, would the government feel obliged to cut health and care spending?
If the Treasury was obliged to top up funding from the central pot, the benefits of hypothecation would be lost.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all run their own health services, but they will also benefit from any extra funding.
3. Free childcare
All children aged two to four will qualify for 35 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. For children whose parents are in work, it will start from nine months.
It is an eye-catching, and potentially eye-wateringly expensive election promise. According to the independent economists at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Lib Dems’ planned expansion of free childcare would represent an extra £13bn a year. That is four-and-a-half times higher than the current level of spending.
This is an expensive offer that could attract criticism as a big giveaway to some better-off parents, while not helping the poorest children who might benefit most. Currently all three to four-year-olds with both parents working can access 30 hours free childcare, unless either parents earns more than £100,000 a year.
It’s easy to focus on hours, but all the evidence points to quality being important for children to develop. There is a long-term ambition in the party’s plans to have at least one graduate in every early years’ setting, but with no date to meet that standard.
Childcare is a devolved issue.
4. Generate 80% of electricity from renewables
Achieve this target by 2030 to reduce carbon emissions.
Even by the standards of an election busy with competing green claims, the Liberal Democrats’ target for renewable energy is ambitious.
Their manifesto calls for 80% of the UK’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030.
We are already on a path of rapid decarbonisation – with 40% of our electricity produced by wind, solar and biomass in the third quarter of this year.
And recent government projections suggest that contribution is set to rise to just under 50% over the next decade.
So the Liberal Democrats’ plan for 80% would mean the extremely rapid construction of many more solar farms and wind turbines on land and out at sea.
Only the Green Party envisages a faster transition.
These targets would apply to the whole of the UK.
5. Tax frequent flyers
Those who take the most international flights face a tax rise, while costs would come down for people who take one or two international return flights a year.
The statistics suggest a frequent flyer levy is justified. More than half of those surveyed by the Department for Transport in 2014 said they had not taken any flights in the previous 12 months.
The Lib Dems’ policy becomes less radical when you consider that people only taking one or two return flights a year would pay less tax.
If so many flights are taken by so few, a tax hike on frequent flyers could increase the total amount of tax paid per flight.
The UK already has one of the highest rates of Airport Passenger Duty in the world. Unsurprisingly airline bosses are against a rise.
Ultimately they could pass any additional cost on to passengers. Then it comes down to whether their customers are prepared to pay a little more.
With aviation’s impact on the climate in sharp focus, some type of tax reform feels inevitable.
The boss of EasyJet, Johan Lundgren, wants a tax system which “incentivises good behaviour”, such as investing in schemes to offset CO2 emissions.
6. Recruit 20,000 more teachers
Spend £10.6bn more a year on schools and hire thousand of new teachers by the end of the next Parliament.
The promise of another 20,000 teachers in England’s schools and falling class sizes may be deceptively hard to deliver.
Schools in England decide how to spend their own budgets. Many of the posts that have disappeared have been support staff such as counsellors or librarians.
Head teachers may restore these posts first. There is so much pressure to get results that teachers’ jobs are often the last to go, although some are quietly not replaced.
The Liberal Democrats’ funding offer means that by 2023, schools in England will be back to where they were in 2010 once costs are taken into account.
After that it would grow further. There are 453,400 teachers already in England but there is also a population bulge hitting secondary schools, which is due to continue until 2025. So while primary class sizes might shrink, secondary classes could grow.
On tuition fees, a previously politically toxic issue for the Liberal Democrats, a review of university finance is promised in the next parliament. But there is a commitment to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students, which would lower their overall borrowing for a degree.
Education is fully devolved to each part of the UK.
7. Legalise cannabis
Help to break the grip of the criminal gangs by introducing a legal, regulated market for cannabis.
Legalising the recreational use of cannabis for adults is one of the most radical of the Lib Dems’ proposals, having first appeared in its 2017 manifesto.
The emergence of regulated cannabis markets in Uruguay, Canada and some US states has fuelled calls for change in the UK. A number of high-profile politicians and police figures are backing the move, along with an increasing proportion of the public, according to a recent opinion survey.
The Lib Dems believe it would help “break the grip” of the criminal gangs that profit from the lucrative trade in illegal drugs – and it’s a powerful argument.
But evidence suggests legalisation would not end the cannabis black market for under-18s, nor for those wanting more potent strains. There is also concern it could encourage greater use of the drug and act as a gateway to more harmful substances – which is why most of the other political parties will not make the same, bold commitment.
8. Freeze train fares
The freeze would apply to all peak-time and season tickets for the next parliament.
Too many commuters in too many parts of Britain have suffered an unreliable service for too long. So a fare freeze for all peak-time and season tickets seems…fair!
The Liberal Democrats say the taxpayer would foot the bill. They reckon it will cost £1.6bn over five years.
For context, operating and maintaining the UK’s rail infrastructure costs about £6bn a year. When you consider inflation, the policy in effect makes rail travel cheaper.
The more intractable issue is how to make it better.
Our railways are bursting at the seams. In places you simply can’t fit more trains on the tracks.
The Liberal Democrats are committed to completing the HS2 high-speed railway, which would create extra capacity.
They say they would also spend £15bn on enhancements to the existing rail infrastructure over five years. That’s above recent rates of spending. In 2018-19 Network Rail spent £1.8bn of government cash on upgrades.
9. Introduce a 20% rise for zero-hours workers
Pay boost the higher minimum wage for people working on zero-hours contracts.
The Lib Dems have pledged to set a 20% higher minimum wage for gig economy workers “at times of normal demand”. They say this will help compensate for the uncertainty of having work hours that fluctuate.
The number of people describing themselves as on a zero-hours contract more than quadrupled between 2011 and 2016, although many may have been unaware they were on one. It’s since tailed off slightly, but still stands at almost 900,000 people, or 2.7% of the workforce.
Some form of pay bonus for insecure work has been suggested before. Matthew Taylor, who led a review into UK working practices, has suggested a 15% minimum wage boost, echoing a similar policy in Australia whereby a 25% pay premium is added to casual work.
Jonathan Cribb, senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says the proposal is interesting for two reasons.
“It’s likely to reduce the number of firms who want to hire people on zero-hours contracts and incentivise them to move people on to a regular contract.
“It also means people in regular employment might seek out a zero-hours contract because they like the flexibility. So essentially, there could be fewer opportunities for these contracts and more people searching for them.”
10. Resettle 10,000 refugees a year
In the next 10 years, 10,000 more unaccompanied refugee children will also be allowed into the UK.
This pledge is part of a planned overhaul of the UK’s asylum system to help more people fleeing war and persecution.
Since 2015, about 16,000 refugees have found sanctuary under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which was set up for those affected by the conflict in Syria.
In June, the government announced that in 2020 it would replace the programme with a global resettlement project for 5,000 refugees each year.
The Lib Dems’ proposal, therefore, would double the number taken in by the UK, with an extra 1,000 unaccompanied children allowed to settle each year.
The practical difficulties associated with the idea include finding enough local authorities prepared to house the refugees and ensuring that they’re not exploited once they’re in the UK.
11. Tough borrowing rules and targeted tax rises
Brexit bonus funds new teachers, flying taxes fight climate change.
The Liberal Democrats are positioning themselves as the most fiscally virtuous of the major parties, with the toughest rule on borrowing. That means they’ve raised taxes, and are going to be the only party promising a basic rate tax rise. However, the message is that each tax rise has a purpose.
Many of the tax rises are specifically earmarked for spending commitments. Known as hypothecation, this is very much out of fashion at the Treasury which prefers everything to go into a central pot, but helps sell tax hikes to the public.
The manifesto says the air passenger duty rise will go to the fight against climate change, business taxes will pay for an increase in free childcare and an extension of free school meals.
The problem is that if any of these sources of funding falls short individually, will they really defund the spending promises associated with it? Do police receive less, if the country buys less cannabis?
If the £50bn “Remain bonus” is not as bountiful as predicted, will there be fewer teachers?
12. Build 300,000 new homes a year
Bring the supply of new houses into line with demand.
Many people say we face a housing “crisis”, and the Liberal Democrats aim to tackle it with tax changes, government-backed loans, and a housebuilding programme.
A total of 300,000 new homes a year is the current official target for England, but governments have consistently struggled to meet it – England gained only 220,000 last year.
This is due in part, to the whims of builders and planning factors.
More striking are tweaks to the tax system. These include permission for local authorities to levy up to six times the typical council tax fee on homes left empty for more than six months a year, and basing stamp duty on a property’s energy rating.
For tenants, there are plans to help with up-front deposit costs through a Help to Rent loan for all first-time renters under 30.
What do the other parties offer?
What are the parties promising you?
Here’s a concise guide to where the parties stand on key issues like Brexit, education and the NHS.