Snap Analysis 13 June, 2024

The GEek, Labour Manifesto Reaction

Opening our Lib Dem manifesto analysis we pointed out that smaller parties without a credible route to governing are less constrained by deliverability. For our Conservative manifesto analysis we noted that coming up with new ideas was tricky when you’ve been in power for 14 years. Labour fit neither of these categories — they have a very credible route to power (in fact, unless the polls are pollster-career-endingly wrong, they will form the next government) and having been out of power for so long they have had plenty of thinking time and no ownership of the current policy landscape.

That being the case, and with one of the biggest criticisms of Keir Starmer’s Labour being a lack of detail on the ‘how’, you might have expected a pretty comprehensive manifesto. Sadly, length does not equal detail, and without that detail this has been a tricky analysis to produce.

Few will disagree with the ambitions contained within it. Growth? Yes please! Spreading opportunity? Yes please! Safe streets, a functioning NHS and clean energy? Definitely! But ambitions does not a plan make.

We did, however, enjoy the 33 photos of Starmer, and the 38 references to Conservative “chaos” and 24 references to the need to “turn the page”.

 

🥇 REFORMING POLICY

Regulatory Innovation Office

Taxes take the headlines, but regulation is just as important in incentivising and attracting investment. If Labour have any hope of achieving their growth mission, addressing cumbersome and overly risk-averse regulatory approaches will be key. And, as they recognise in their manifesto, this will be particularly important for realising the benefits of cutting-edge technologies — and retaining the commercial value of our brilliant research innovations for UK PLC. Their proposed Regulatory Innovation Office sounds promising in this regard. “This office”, we’re told,” will help regulators update regulation, speed up approval timelines, and co-ordinate issues that span existing boundaries.”

 

😤 REACTIONARY POLICY

Royal college of clinicians

The shadow health and care secretary has been impressively reforming in his approach to the NHS, and as you will see below, we generally like the pledges relating to cutting the wait lists. But we’re baffled by Labour’s pledge to set up yet another professional body. A Royal College of Clinical Leadership would apparently “champion the voice of clinicians”, which makes us wonder what the Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Nurses, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Surgeons, Royal College of GPs, Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Royal College of Anaesthetists, Royal College of Ophthalmologists, Royal College of Radiologists, Royal College of Psychiatrists… you get the point…do. Not to mention the BMA. And of course we already have the NHS Leadership Academy, whose remit is to help develop and inspire health leaders.

Anyone who has worked on NHS reform will note that such an array of professional bodies can make much needed reform harder, adding another one is an odd choice.

 

💬 QUOTE OF THE MANIFESTO

“Investment alone won’t be enough to tackle the problems facing the NHS; it must go hand in hand with fundamental reform."

 

👍 GOOD MANIFESTO FOR

 

Amping up the NHS app

With more than 34 million registered users — but limited functionality to view personal data, or compare service providers — the NHS app is a powerful, but under-utilised platform. Labour’s manifesto picks off some valuable areas for improvement: including introducing notifications for vaccinations and health checks; the ability to sign up to clinical trials directly through the app; and access performance information on local services.

A modern health service should treat patients as co-creators of their own health, and using the NHS app to give patients more agency is a necessary step towards this.

Steps towards waitlist reduction

Elective waitlist figures released today again show numbers heading in the wrong direction, after several months of the backlog modestly falling. Clearly, serious action is needed. And while the measures set out in Labour’s manifesto could be more ambitious, they represent pragmatic steps in the right direction.

For example, a number of hospital trusts have innovatively introduced ‘Super Saturdays’ and run ‘High Intensity Theatre’ lists to achieve higher productivity: seeing and treating more patients. Incentivising ways to clear the backlog out-of-hours and provide more appointments is sensible, even if Labour’s target of 40,000 additional appointments per week is relatively small fry in comparison to the c. 2.4 million outpatient appointments currently delivered per week. The commitment to pool resources between neighbouring hospitals to create shared waitlists could also help in this regard — reducing unwarranted variation in waiting times.

Similarly, we know that the size of the diagnostic backlog is negatively affecting health outcomes, while creating unnecessary strain on other services as patients wait for test results. And that the UK is a real outlier internationally in the number of available CT and MRI scanners. So the pledge to double this number is a necessary condition for more efficient service provision and patients’ access to care.

Finally, using independent sector capacity will also have an impact: with the important caveat that since public and private health providers draw from the same workforce, in one sense this capacity is never entirely “spare”.

Localism

Labour’s manifesto has a series of encouraging pledges to deepen devolution and boost local growth. This includes very welcome commitments to introducing multi-year financial settlements and ending competitive bidding — addressing long-standing complaints within the sector.

Labour has also pledged to deepen existing devolution deals with combined authorities — offering additional powers over housing and planning, adult education and skills, and employment support, as well as offering new deals to new places. Sitting alongside this will be a new statutory requirement for long-term Local Growth Plans, aligned to the national industrial strategy.

Additionally, the manifesto has pledged to grant combined authorities greater powers over housing planning and flexibility over grant funding, whilst requiring mayoral authorities to strategically plan for housing growth. This will allow for a more joined-up, macro approach to housing policy through regional scale planning.

House building

Labour have grasped the nettle of planning reform, committing to a plethora of measures, most notably reintroducing mandatory housing targets, fast-tracking approval of urban brownfield sites, releasing low-quality ‘grey belt’ land from the green belt, and reforming compulsory purchase compensation rules.

Planning reform has been long overdue and these measures — combined with a commitment to building the next generation of new towns — are a good first step towards meeting their target of 1.5 million new homes in England over the next Parliament. The commitment to develop certain parts of the greenbelt is particularly positive. The greenbelt now comprises 13 per cent of England’s total land area and large swathes of this are not pleasant green, rolling fields but rather land which is derelict or has already been built on.

More certainty for business investment

One of the most important factors for businesses deciding whether to invest, and therefore to economic growth, is certainty (will the operating environment be the same in future as it is today?), something that runs counter to five-year election cycles. Several policies in the Labour manifesto, taken together, suggest a commendable ambition to providing a much needed longer term view.

For one, Labour intend to have an industrial strategy (aligned with their five “missions”), which would be underpinned by a ten-year infrastructure strategy, mapping out a future “project pipeline” and plans for improving regional connectivity.

They would also use a newly-created National Wealth Fund, endowed with £7.3 billion over the course of a parliament, to “de-risk” private investment, and double down on Britain’s strengths in particular sectors, particularly green industry, by investing in green hydrogen, new gigafactories and carbon capture.

Ten-year budgets would also apply to the funding of “key R&D institutions” to enable closer partnership with industry. All potential wins for long-termism, and an evidence-led way of crowding in private investment.

 

👎 BAD MANIFESTO FOR

 

(Wasteful) universal spending

Labour have pledged to provide free breakfasts to all children in primary schools across England. There is good evidence that children going to school hungry are less likely to learn, not to mention the nutritional implications. But this universal pledge is a poor use of public funds, and would be better targeted in the same way as free school meals. The programme is estimated to cost £315 million, a hefty chunk of which will be going to subsidise middle-class families who can easily afford to give their children breakfast. The monies that could be saved from targeting this policy would be far better spent on additional programmes to support disadvantaged children (like those mentioned below under ‘The wrong sort of nanny state’).

Public sector efficiency

Much of the manifesto hinges on funding new policies, such as 13,000 more police officers or PCSOs, with new savings and efficiencies. With both tax and debt at post-war highs, this is clearly the best source of revenue to fund new commitments. But Labour’s Plans are lacklustre, identifying just £1.46 billion against a £1,226 billion budget.

Whilst theses savings and their stated tax plan help fund their new policies, there is no room to fund many of the underlying services which will be crucial to delivering them. The Budget forecast these plans are based on implied year-on-year cuts to unprotected department budgets of up to 2.3% in real terms per year. Their prison-building programme or police recruitment plans won’t happen unless Labour can find efficiencies of that level to protect frontline services.

A credible border plan

Labour have plenty to say on controlling the border and ending the small boats crisis, but no plan to back it up. Their plan hinges on prosecuting smuggling gangs with a new Border Security Command and more investigators, a new returns and enforcement unit to fast-track removals to save countries, and negotiating more returns agreements with other countries.

New returns agreements are unlikely, given the majority of new asylum seekers come from dangerous third countries. So even if cases are processed more quickly and fail, they still need to be housed in Britain — sometimes indefinitely. It is telling that Labour don’t expect any net savings from these policies in the manifesto. We spent £4.9 billion last year on supporting asylum seekers, including over £3 billion on hotels, and Labour’s manifest lacks a plan to dramatically reduce this.

The wrong sort of nanny state

The Labour manifesto is light on education policies, but one task primary schools will pick up is brushing pupils’ teeth. Dental decay among children is undeniably a problem, with those from more deprived areas suffering the most. But introducing supervised tooth-brushing for 3-5 year olds, as well as creating further non-educational burdens on teachers, ignores the need to support families in practicing good dental hygiene and to raise awareness about the impact of diet. The manifesto has nothing to say on, for example, the role or expansion of Sure Start centres (Family Hubs in new money), and health visitors only get one mention (a new role in vaccinations), but these are exactly the sort of schemes that could make a real difference in supporting parents — in dental health and well beyond.

Undermining your own devo plans

As you’ve read, we like a lot of what Labour are saying about their plans for devolution. But just as devo took both a ‘good for’ and a ‘bad for’ spot in our analysis of the Conservative manifesto, so is the case for Labour. Because you can’t both be radical devolvers and committed to massive national bureaucracies.

In one breath, Labour commit to giving local areas powers over adult education, skills and employment support, in another they are merging Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service to “provide a national jobs and career service”. Setting aside the merits and drawbacks of the latter, these two pledges are clearly in tension. A sensibly radical government would devolve Jobcentre Plus and let the regions shape their own services according to their local labour markets.

 

MIA...

In our Reformer blog two weeks ago, policy director Simon Kaye pointed out that party manifestos provide a “constitutionally important programme for government”. That doesn’t mean they should set out in minute detail everything a party would do over a five-year parliamentary term, but they should, at the very least, spell out what a party’s broad ambition is in key policy areas. It is disappointing, therefore, that Labour’s manifesto so frequently falls back on commitments to review key issues if they form the next government.

International security? Labour will conduct a “Strategic Defence Review”. School curriculums? Labour will launch an “expert-led review”. Right to buy? Labour will “better protect our existing stock by reviewing the increased right to buy discounts introduced in 2012”. Universal Credit? Labour is “committed to reviewing”. The way teacher bursaries are allocated and retention payments are structured? Labour will review.

We all get the the political value of not saying too much and allowing as much wriggle room as possible, but the number of reviews indicates a party which has not yet decided what it wants to do… worrying given the likelihood of it holding the keys to Downing Street in just over three weeks.