Five non-Brexit battlegrounds in the 2017 election
The policy divide between the main political parties at this election is set to be wider than at any time in the past 30 years, presenting voters with some stark choices on June 8.
Apart from the battle for a mandate for the UK’s negotiating stance on Brexit, the coming campaign will see individual parties move away from their habitual political platforms, each trying to claim at least some ground in the centre even as they simultaneously make appeals to very different constituencies.
For Theresa May, the election presents the opportunity to govern on the basis of her own vision for Britain rather than one inherited from David Cameron. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left will get the first chance since 1983 to test the popularity of a radical leftwing platform.
The Scottish Nationalist party will seek to make the election a plebiscite on the need for a second independence referendum, while the Liberal Democrats are positioning themselves as the party of internationalism and youth — and the country’s best chance of overturning Brexit. For the UK Independence party, the vote will test whether it still has any national relevance after the EU referendum, the contest that was its whole reason for being.
Brexit will dominate the campaign but there will be five other significant battlegrounds.
How to get the economy going
Britain’s economy has been very successful at creating jobs since the financial crisis but not at raising the quality and productivity of the workforce. The result has been no growth in output per job for almost a decade, yet without productivity improvements living standards will struggle to rise and the public finances barely improve. Britain has had the worst productivity slowdown of any leading advanced economy since 2007, but the parties cannot agree on its cause or its cure.
Not since the early 1980s have the main parties disagreed so much on the drivers of prosperity. Mr Corbyn’s Labour believes in state intervention to secure a more successful economy. It has pledged £500bn — more than a quarter of national income — for investment into industry through a national investment bank, with the majority of its capital coming from public borrowing. Labour also seeks rent controls to limit the cost of housing, a £10 an hour minimum wage, a nationalised railway and democratic control over energy policy.
Although the Conservatives have ditched the Thatcherite free-market mentality in favour of an industrial strategy, it is far removed from the state intervention proposed by Labour. The strategy does not differ radically from the business policies of the coalition government between 2010 and 2015 in that it seeks to create innovation hubs in sectors such as battery technology, co-ordinate training schemes within industries, add money to the science budget and enable the regions to help themselves with some devolutionary measures.
To pursue or to drop austerity policies
All parties claim to support the NHS, the education system, an effective military and good policing. But they argue fiercely over the effects of public spending cuts since the Conservative-led coalition government came to power in 2010.
The deficit has already come down from 10 per cent of national income in 2009 to a projected 2.9 per cent this year. That has come as the result of severe spending restraints — but public services, from schools to social care, are now feeling the squeeze of seven years of austerity.
Labour and the SNP blame the failures of public services the cuts while the Conservatives insist more are needed to bring the public finances under control. While the Tories say borrowing needs to be eliminated in the early 2020s for the sake of stability, the other parties are willing to continue to borrow so long as it is only for capital investment — and Labour, as mentioned, wants to raise investment substantially.
Pensions, taxes and wealth
Labour will seek to redistribute more from rich to poor and therefore support wealth taxes, as do the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives are traditionally opposed. All main parties apart from the Conservatives oppose the proposed cuts to non-pensioner benefits, such as sharp reductions to payments of universal credit to poorer working families and the freeze on most other non-pensioner benefits.
As for pensions, each party will need to decide whether to continue with the triple lock — guaranteeing that the basic pension rises along with earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent each year, whichever is the larger.
They will also need to decide whether to continue to pledge not to raise the main rates of income tax, national insurance or value added tax, as they all did in one way or another in the 2015 election campaign.
Education and selection
Mrs May’s desire to end the ban on opening more grammar schools has encountered stiff opposition from Labour and the Liberal Democrats and even from within her own party. But enshrining new grammars in the Conservative manifesto will make it much easier to get the contentious policy through parliament, because this will make it harder for Tory rebels to object and for the House of Lords to block the plans.
One of Labour’s most eye-catching policy announcements in recent weeks has also been on education: Jeremy Corbyn has suggested extending free school meals to all primary pupils, paid for by charging VAT on private school fees.
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The choice facing voters on this subject is relatively stark: Labour is defending comprehensives and attacking fee-paying parents, while the Tories, by promoting greater selection in the state education system, are challenging the consensus that grammar schools are bad for social mobility. They also want the establishment of more free schools in a bid to improve quality and choice in education.
The Scottish independence question
The stakes could not be much higher for the SNP, which will campaign on the need for a second referendum on independence. Having won all but three Scottish constituencies in the 2015 national election, any similar result will provide Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader, with significant public backing for her push to have a another referendum.
A stronger showing for pro-union parties — and the Conservative party in particular — could deal a serious blow to the independence cause. And the SNP, with such a thumping victory in 2015, has set the bar high for itself, so even a good result could look less impressive when set against the standards of last time around.