Today the SMF held their second debate in a series focused on examining and evaluating each party manifesto. After last week’s debate on the Conservative manifesto, today was the turn of the Labour manifesto.

At the front of a packed room sat three panellists: Sonia Sodha, a former advisor to Ed Miliband; Ryan Shorthouse, founder and director of Bright Blue; and Ryan Bourne, head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Chairing the discussion was Emran Mian of the SMF who made a quick plea to the panellists to keep the focus on the policies in the document rather than speculating on what the possible election result would be.

Mian kicked off the debate by giving each panellist an opportunity to discuss a Labour Policy commitment they support or admire.

Sodha praised the manifesto for its commitments to house building, rent caps and extending childcare. And unlike what some people might have the public believe, this manifesto is not a radical red document. However, she was also ready to state her scepticism about some of the document’s more populist policies. Her concerns focussed on the stamp duty cut and university tuition fees.

Ryan Shorthouse gave the document some back-handed praise with an answer that shared some similarities with that of Sodha’s. Wearing red shoes especially for the occasion, Shorthouse noted the manifesto was surprisingly conservative and marked with timidity and triangulation. In the document there wasn’t much that matched Ed Miliband’s campaign rhetoric. Shorthouse even went as far as to say that much of the manifesto seemed to be focused on carrying on the Coalition agenda, noting Labour’s commitment to maintaining the triple lock on pensions and extending childcare.

Ryan Bourne was slower to praise the document. He focused on what seemed to be Labour’s new commitment to spending responsibility and noted that however vague their plans to fund new policies, at least Labour had started filling in the details on to how to do so. Bourne said this document marked a hopeful transition to fiscal realism on the Labour parties’ part.

The first real back-and-forth of the debate took place when the panellists began discussing housing. Sodha and Bourne stood on opposite sides of the issue when it came to rent control. Bourne argued that while Labour’s policy on rent control would not be disastrous, it wouldn’t help the problem because Landlords could actually front load rent. This in turn would cause rents to rise and not fall.

Sodha dismissed Bourne’s concerns, saying that while the policy may not solve the problem of higher rents it could overall improve the issue. In the end the two came to a loose agreement saying that what the government needed to do if they want to solve the housing crisis was to actually build more houses.

The final part of the debate before the audience was allowed to ask questions focused on the economy and fiscal policies. Bourne and Shorthouse more or less agreed that the Labour Manifesto read as an attempt to prove itself to be a party of fiscal prudence. And while Labour steered away from making too many large spending commitments, the manifesto lacked a clear vision and didn’t include any of the root and branch reform needed. Shorthouse said that the Manifesto focused too heavily on subsidising problem areas such as housing, rather than enacting root and branch supply-side reform.

The question-and-answer portion of the debate opened with a question on the lack of policy that would address income inequality and equity in the UK. Sodha took a strong stance, stating in very general terms that making work pay is important, but then moving on to say that the Tories would do more to actually grow inequality with their welfare cuts.

Shorthouse said that Labour missed a trick when it failed to made the universal credit contributory-based. Giving people more leisure time is not as important as making work rewarding. If people are rewarded based on their contribution and feel rewarded by their work, society moves a more equitable position. Bourne said that equality would come with productivity: Increase the productivity of labourers and you increase revenue.

Another audience question that sparked interesting debate was that of zero-hour contracts. Bourne argued that while flexibility is key in the labour market, employers would exploit loopholes in the system. Employers could move to hiring more agency staff or firing those on zero hour contracts after 10 weeks.

Sohda took a slightly different approach to the issues, providing the audience with an anecdote about university graduates who were only able to find zero hour contract jobs and spent most of their time sitting at home waiting to see how many hours they could get down working at the local pub. Shorthouse said that like all aspects of government, there needs to be a nimbleness in policy that addresses and helps those who are disaffected, but leaves alone those having positive experiences.

Despite only lasting an hour the informal debate managed to cover what seemed to be the most important issues surrounding the manifesto. Despite certain partisan biases, the discussion was fair and was able to focus on both the positive and negatives of the major proposals.


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