With the UK General Election imminent, all the major parties have revealed their manifesto promises. The smaller parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Brexit Party etc – do have some distinguishing features, but in this analysis we will stick mainly to the “big four”. The primary focus is on those policies that will affect the space and defence industries, but we also offer a round-up of key factors for those not absorbed in the British debate.
Space and Industry
Regrettably most of the parties have ignored space and it is only directly mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto. Reassuringly, this notes that space is a key technology area to be invested in. Taking a lead from the USA, the Conservatives plan for the UK to have its own “space command” to deal with spacecraft tracking and any military aspects of spaceflight.
The Conservative government has since committed to increasing its circa £300 million funding of the European Space Agency by 15%, allowing it to take part in the human spaceflight programme in concert with NASA, This raises the prospect of getting a British astronaut onto the Moon.
The Labour manifesto does not mention space directly but does mention support for aerospace, albeit that the steel industry figures more prominently in its manifesto. Sadly, neither the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) nor the Greens mention space at all.
The relatively low spending promises in the Conservative manifesto (only £3 billion extra compared with Labour’s £83 billion) mean that they have no need to impose large tax rises on UK industry, as Labour will have to do.
Under Labour plans, Corporation Tax will rise as will direct and indirect taxes on high earners, which critics suggest may encourage them to leave the UK. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that lower earners will have to be significantly taxed as well – and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has since accepted this.
The Lib Dems are somewhere in between, with a spending strategy that relies on tax rises, including income tax, but also on an assumed “remain” bonus via greater short-to-medium term growth in the economy – and hence in tax revenues – which the IFS cautions is difficult to predict.
Labour’s position on renationalising the utilities and the railways remains popular with voters – if not private industry – albeit some have “Big Brother” and “Big Government” reservations about nationalising BT’s infrastructure unit, Openreach.
Although some have concerns about EU power, the UK space industry remains strongly in favour of remaining in the EU. Not least because a lot of its project funding comes from there. If and when Brexit happens, this will mean that the UK will be thrown out of the Galileo navsat programme. As such, the Conservative pro-Brexit agenda is unlikely to be popular with those involved in space. Nevertheless, as noted above, the Conservatives remain committed to space and to the European Space Agency, which is not part of the EU even if the latter would like it to be.
Of the other parties, the “revoke Brexit” without a second referendum position of the Lib Dems is regarded by many (even some remainers) as “undemocratic” as it effectively usurps the result of the Brexit referendum. Nevertheless, at least the Lib Dems have clarity on this subject and thus will still have significant “remainer” support.
The Labour position of renegotiating a deal with the EU in six months is regarded as unrealistic. As it is, Jeremy Corbyn’s position of maintaining “neutrality” in a second referendum, lacks credibility especially if he is involved in negotiating any new deal. The Green Party and the SNP are strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but accept that this decision has to be made by a second referendum.
Defence and Nuclear Deterrence
All the parties claim to be strong on defence, with a special emphasis on maintaining cyber defences against hostile nations. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons do create a divide. The Greens (in concert with the SNP) totally oppose the UK retaining nuclear weapons on moral and economic grounds. The Conservative Party is the most pro-retaining the nuclear deterrent and for fully replacing the current Vanguard class of four Trident missile carrying submarines with four new Dreadnought class boats.
The Lib Dems are in favour of retaining the Trident nuclear deterrent but would only have three submarines. While this does offer a minor cost saving, Royal Navy Admirals as well as most defence experts note that this will not offer enough redundancy to guarantee a presence at sea for the UK nuclear deterrent.
Labour’s position officially matches the Conservative one in retaining and updating Trident missiles and replacing the four submarines. However, its leader is known to be both a pacifist and an anti-nuclear protester. Thus, if Corbyn achieves office, it is expected his first act as Prime Minister would be effectively to “pull out the firing pins” by instructing his Royal Navy submarine captains never to fire the nuclear-tipped Trident missiles, even if the UK were under nuclear attack. This would not necessarily matter for nuclear deterrence so long as this fact was not made public, creating uncertainty among the UK’s enemies.
During the campaign it was somewhat unrealistically suggested that, rather than the Prime Minister alone, the Labour government would make a collective decision on whether nuclear weapons would be used or not. Of course, this assumes that four-minute warning would allow enough time for a committee meeting.
NHS, Housing and Reducing Carbon all have universal support
With respect to the main parties fighting this election, some policies seem to have universal support. It is just a matter of degree. For example, they are in unison in trying to reduce global warming and climate change by trying to cut greenhouse gas (especially carbon dioxide) emissions and strongly supporting renewable energy initiatives. The main differences between the parties are over the timing and funds allocated. As you would expect, the Greens have the most ambitious timeline.
Likewise, the NHS, schools and building more housing all have universal support, with all the parties promising to increase spending on these, albeit with variations according to public versus private industry argument. While the NHS is traditionally not its strongest suit, even the Conservatives are planning to increase the number of nurses partly to calm fears about Brexit’s effect on the NHS. The Conservatives also plan to add police officers to make up for Theresa May’s ill-advised cuts to police numbers.
Tuition fees and other factors
University tuition fees remain a sore subject for the Lib Dems, who have previously been electorally punished for supporting large rises while in coalition with the Conservatives. Nevertheless, in the Lib Dem manifesto there is no attempt to end them, unlike Labour’s official position. The Green policy will be even more popular with students and ex-students in that it would not only end tuition fees but cancel the accumulated debts as well.
On workers’ rights and welfare, Labour promises to end controversial use of “zero-hours” employment contracts for all workers, and end the recently introduced but already unpopular “Universal Credit” benefit system. The Conservatives plan to retain both, while the Lib Dems plan reform the systems.
All the parties are trying to be diversity friendly – although they perhaps go too far in some cases, with Labour promoting positive discrimination for some minorities even if it is at the expense of others. Meanwhile, the Greens promise to make “misogyny” a crime, which critics note could both use up valuable police time and put off fearful male voters.
The Conservative position on immigration has weakened compared with the Brexit party’s harder line, and now proposes letting in EU migrants with skills needed in the UK.
The Lib Dems are the most civil liberty savvy with a promise to stop police use of facial recognition technologies. Public alarm over the burgeoning “Big Brother” surveillance state, especially over the potential for live-tracking individuals’ movements, has meant that this measure has increasing support. However, some caution that the retrospective use of facial recognition in CCTV imagery is helpful in solving serious crimes.
Voter fatigue over the Brexit debate, the overwhelming desire to end austerity and concerns that the main parties are becoming more extreme are also factors in this election.
The question of which of the leaders are acceptable to voters also figures. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, of the Lib Dems, all have their detractors. However, it is Corbyn who has the hardest fight against unpopularity in the opinion polls. For many the key decision in this election is between Fear of Corbyn and Fear of Brexit.
And finally, while manifesto promises by left-of-centre parties to create a socially fairer Britain are easy to make on paper, the question about whether they are affordable and how this will affect taxes – especially if implemented all at once – will further exercise the minds of voters.
Labour’s WASPI redress coup
Perhaps the coup of the campaign so far, although again possibly not affordable, was for Labour to offer several thousands of pounds in compensation to women born in the 1950s who have seen their state pension age raised. The move is expected to cost in excess of £58 billion over five years and was not included in the already very high price of Labour’s manifesto. Nevertheless, whether viewed as a justified redress in response to a campaign by WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality), or just as a very expensive election bribe, this could gain Labour significant support. This, and the use of “tactical voting”, could be significant factors in marginal constituencies.
The nature of the UK’s “first past the post” constituency voting system means that the result of this election is likely to be either a small Conservative majority or a Lib-Lab-SNP-Green coalition government – but probably not with Jeremy Corbyn at its head. The Lib Dems have signaled that they will not support Corbyn as Prime Minister.
The Lib Dems may pick up some seats in London – especially in North London’s Jewish communities who are unimpressed by Labour’s alleged antisemitism – plus a few gains in the South West, albeit that this traditionally Lib Dem territory is also very pro-Brexit which will limit their haul.
The Conservatives may lose most of their remaining seats in Scotland but could pick up more in Labour territories in the north of England (vestigial UKIP support will damage Labour here more than the Conservatives). The Greens could see their vote dramatically rise if the young support them en masse, although this may only result in gaining one or two more seats (at best). A swing to them would probably damage the Lib Dems more than anyone else.
On election day on 12 December, the balance between these factors will define who the winner(s) are.