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6 August 2015

What’s in Andy Burnham’s manifesto?

There is much to like, much to dislike, and much that has been copy-pasted from Ed Miliband's 2015 manifesto. 

By Stephen Bush

Andy Burnham has launched his manifesto, A Radical Labour Vision for the 21st Century. Headline policies include rail re-nationalization, abolishing tuition fees, and allowing councils to borrow to build more houses.

There is a lot to like, a lot to dislike, and a lot that has been cut-and-pasted from Labour’s 2015 manifesto.

Let’s start with the bad stuff, first. The graduate tax is one of those surprisingly resilient but largely unworkable policy ideas that has been knocking around the left for decades – Charles Clarke, who increased tuition fees from £1,000 to £3,000, arrived at the Department for Education a strong supporter of the idea. Vince Cable, who increased tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000, arrived at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills as a supporter of a graduate tax.

It’s also a strangely unattractive option from a principled position, too. There is a good argument for funding higher education out of general taxation – we all benefit from the number of graduates in society, education should be a social good not just an investment, etcetera – but if you accept the idea of a graduate contribution, it’s not clear what the benefits are to one which a) doesn’t guarantee the university a certain level of funding every year, regardless of subsequent political interference and b) falls on the student forever.

As for “letting councils borrow to build” is 50 per cent of a good policy. It needs to be accompanied both with deregulation of the housing market and appropriate safeguards to make sure that councils – already facing, by 2020, a ten-year squeeze on their finances – don’t simply use the extra wiggle room to build high-end flats in order to keep services going, but in general, the direction of travel is a good one.  

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Renationalising the railways looks like a straight copy of the Miliband-era policy of gradually letting private contracts lapse and fall back into public hands. If you want to renationalize the railways, this is a perfectly good way of doing it, as it is significantly cheaper than reimbursing the cost of the entire contract. But most railway contracts will be handed out over the next five years, meaning that it is also an essentially meaningless one as Labour has no chance of getting power until the 2020 election.

Also a retread from Labour’s 2015 manifesto: reversing the cuts to legal aid, regulating bus companies, both fairly straightforward and popular policies that would be at home in the manifestos of any of the four candidates. Less happily, “controls on immigration” are back, now rebranded as “practical answers on immigration”. As with Ed Miliband’s approach, the policies promise something they don’t even begin to deliver.

Burnham’s three-pronged solution: more EU funding for areas experiencing high migration, a delay before migrants can claim benefits, and action to prevent undercutting.

It’s difficult to decide where to begin with these. That areas experiencing higher levels of EU migration should receive higher EU funding for school places, housing and transport isn’t a bad policy, although it would probably increase migration over all, as it would create more jobs – the major “pull factor” bringing people to Britain. Preventing undercutting, too, is good policy – inasmuch as it’s possible – although, again, would likely increase migration, because people come to Britain in search of work.

As for this idea that delaying access to benefits is going to be a cure-all: at risk of sounding like a broken record, jobs, not Britain’s benefits system, is what attracts migrants to the United Kingdom.

All in all, from a wonkish perspective, a bit of a curate’s egg: good in patches, bad in patches. From a political perspective: unlikely to win any new votes from Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall.