How far do the main political parties differ on policies and ideas?

Traditionally, political parties have been characterised by very different ideologies. The policies of the three main parties were underpinned by a coherent set of ideas and beliefs, which were particular to that party. Although the three main parties still have distinct ideological traditions, they have evolved since their conception and as a result of Thatcherism and ‘New Labour’  – the once distinct policy boundaries have become blurred. All three parties now subscribe to the Thatcher concept of a free market. In recent years the parties can be said to have moderated their traditional positions as part of an effort to appeal to as wide a range of voters as possible. All three parties are now essentially social democratic in nature and are more concerned with making piecemeal changes to current arrangements as opposed to imposing an ideological model. As a result, it can be seen that there are considerable similarities in policy and the differences are usually one of approach in achieving the goal – for example, in the 2010 election, in the economic policy, all three parties agreed that there would need to be significant spending cuts to reduce the deficit: Conservatives argued for immediate major cuts in spending but the Labour and Liberal Democrats proposed no major cuts in the first year.

In some areas of policy there remain distinct differences between the political parties and this is seen most clearly in the sphere of education. The Conservatives take a libertarian approach and believe in reducing state control over education and strongly support the creation of Free Schools. The Labour and Liberal democrats are strongly opposed to such moves and believe in State control and intervention, for example, the Labour Party wish to take over around 1,000 mediocre or failing schools and support free school meals for primary school children. Similarly, the Liberal Democrat commitment to phase out university tuition fees reflect their commitment of the State to intervene and provide free education to all. Despite these differences,  all three political parties can be said to have the same overall vision in what they want to achieve through their education policies: to give all children the same educational opportunities and increase social mobility. Most recently, the Conservative proposition to widen grammar school provision under the leadership of Theresa May shows a stark difference in the approach of the political parties in achieving this ideal. May sees grammar schools as a way of ensuring that poorer children get access to the best education.  Labour and Liberal Democrats disagree and argue that grammar schools lead to social exclusion and that equality of opportunity is achieved through good comprehensive education.

All three major political parties follow a similar line in foreign policy issues and security of the country – for example they are all committed to the war on terror and look to co-operate with international countries to increase the defence of the country. All three parties are committed to UK military presence in Afghanistan to combat the rise of extremism in the form of the Taliban. The ideological roots of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in being anti-war can be seen in their commitment to regulate the arms trade and arms exports – the Conservative party have no such commitment. This difference in policy can be seen as a result of difference in ideologies. The political parties views on Trident differ and this can be viewed as a result of their differing ideologies. Traditionally, Labour has been anti-nuclear weapons and under Jeremy Corbyn looks like moving from the policy of maintaining a nuclear deterrent to adopting the policy of unilateral disarmament (an ‘old labour’ approach). The Liberal Democrats are against Trident renewal, seeing it as a chance ‘to step down the nuclear ladder’ (Tim Farron). In contrast, the Conservatives are committed to the nuclear deterrent and wish to replace the Trident missile system.

The Welfare State is an area where the main political parties differ in terms of policy and ideas. The Conservatives accept the welfare state as necessary but are committed to a more limited state welfare provision (a lower safety net) than either the Labour or Liberal Democratic parties. The Conservatives believe in minimal state intervention and as such their main emphasis is on making savings – for example, during the 2015 election the most prominent part of their welfare policy was on making a £12 billion saving on welfare and to maintain the freeze in working benefits for two years and cut the household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 a year. In contrast, the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties have strong support for the Welfare State and support increased spending in this area. They see the Welfare State as way of reducing poverty, support the disadvantaged and promote the value of work. As such, their welfare state policies promote social justice, for example, during the 2015 elections, the Liberal Democrats sought to encourage the payment of the living wage to public sector employees. Similarly, the Labour party guaranteed jobs for under-25s who had been unemployed for more than a year, and for older people who had been unemployed for over two years.

Continued investment in the National Health Service (NHS) is a policy on which all three political parties agree.  They differ in the amount they propose to invest and the manner in which they will raise the funds needed to fund more investment. During the 2015 election, the Conservatives pledged an £8bn investment by 2020. This pledge was made on the basis of predicted NHS savings and included £700mn of underspend in the NHS from the previous budget. Both the Labour party and Liberal Democratic party pledged to spend more (Labour an extra £2.5bn a year and Liberal Democrats an extra £1bn a year). The Liberal Democrats had a similar approach to the Conservatives in that extra revenue would be found by savings in efficiencies and reforms in the NHS but also through reducing tax relief and increasing taxes on share dividends for the high earners.  The Conservatives would not seek to gain extra revenue from these sources as this would alienate part of their core vote.  Unsurprisingly, the Labour party also seek to pay for increased NHS spending through taxation – in particular, tax avoidance measures and the introduction of the ‘Mansion Tax.’ They believe the Mansion Tax would provide £1.2bn of the promised £2.5bn. Payers of these taxes would be the rich elite of society – traditional Conservative voters. This would link in with the Labour ideology about a more equitable redistribution of wealth.

It has been argued that there is little difference in policy and ideas between the major political parties due to a shift in their ideological standpoints, for example, all parties now accept the concept of the free market capitalism as the best way to create wealth. The old collectivist ideas of Labour have been replace by a greater emphasis on individualism. All parties now adhere to the concept of social justice. Thus, the main ideas of the parties have become similar but as this essay has shown, what is clear is that the ways in which these policies will be achieved differs.

Ella Harvey

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