A reality check on Conservative policies ACADEMICS STAND AGAINST POVERTY UK

June 2015

A mandate from just 24% of the voting population has allowed David Cameron to return to Downing Street and the Conservatives to form a “majority government”. This unexpected development has led to a renewed interest in the party’s position on poverty, especially in the context of the"emergency austerity" budget.

In the run-up to the general election we examined the manifestos of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour, Greens and UKIP. We drew conclusions about the different parties’ ability to create conditions for British society to flourish based on analysis across 12 domestic and two international policy areas.

The table illustrates the scores across 12 domestic policy areas for each of the five parties we audited. It allows the reader to compare government policies against those proposed by the other parties in relation to addressing poverty and inequality, and in creating the conditions needed for British society to flourish. A full account of all party manifestos analysed, including details of more progressive policies put forward by other parties, can be found here.

1 = Very Low confidence
5 = Very High confidence
Conservative Greens Labour Lib Dems UKIP
TOTAL 1.7 3.9 2.6 3.2 1.4
Crime & Justice 1 4 1 3 1
Disability 2 5 4 5 3
Education 2 4 4 4 2
Employment 1 3 2 2 1
Fiscal policy 2 3 3 2 1
Health 2 5 2 4 1
Housing 1 4 3 3 2
Immigration 1 4 2 3 1
Migration & Security 1 4 2 3 1
Money & Banking 3 4 3 3 1
Social Security 2 3 3 3 2
Sustainability & Environment 2 4 2 3 1
International aid Not applicable – Scores awarded only for UK impact
Beyond Aid Not applicable – Scores awarded only for UK impact

The Conservative party scored an average of 1.7 out of 5 on its domestic policies, with its best thinking shown with respect to money and banking, where it received a middling score of 3 out of 5. The party’s overall poor performance is a result of consistently receiving scores of 1 and 2 in key policies areas, which suffered from insufficient detail on funding and/or implementation, applying a narrow lens to a policy area, an absence of joined-up thinking and in some cases contradictions.

A lack of detail was noted by our authors examining fiscal policy, employment, healthcare, disability, education and sustainability and the environment. The application of a narrow lens to a policy area is apparent for money and banking, employment, housing, social security, healthcare, crime and justice and international development. The inability to connect the dots across policy areas is noticeable for healthcare, education, crime and justice, immigration and international development as well as sustainability and the environment.

Contradictions emerge in three areas: Our author for crime and justice noted contradictions in relation to the party’s commitment to victims’ rights. With respect to disability, the manifesto’s mention of disability hate crime legislation is at odds with the party’s intention to abolish the Human Right Act. Finally, for a party that identifies itself as a “party for the working people”, it is ironic that our author found that significant reductions in social security will leave claimants in full-time employment not only with reduced disposable income, but below the minimum income standard.

Click on the icons below to explore key insights from our April 2015 analysis of the Conservative manifesto. It is clear that consistently poor policy design calls into question the notion of compassionate conservatism; and has serious implications for the levels of poverty and inequality in this country.

Fiscal Policy

Money and Banking



Social Security




Crime and Justice


Sustainability and Environment

International Development

Crime and Justice

The singular focus on 'the community' in the manifesto suggests that criminal justice policy is principally relevant to poor neighbourhoods. There are no plausible suggestions on how the party could regulate the financial sector better, prevent the manipulation of financial markets or curb the growth of inequality. However, the pledge to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance is welcome. There is a failure to recognise the close interrelationship between inequality and criminal justice, and that reductions in welfare and other social provisions create the conditions whereby such relationships are reproduced. The manifesto suggests more innovative ways of criminalising people and creating more prison spaces to lock them in, rather than articulating credible preventative methods.

There is considerable emphasis on victims, but the party's commitment to victims’ rights is undermined by two contradictory pledges. Firstly, it claims to "scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights" and replace it with a 'British Bill of Rights'’. Secondly, in 2012 the Coalition Government stripped citizens of their right to legal aid, which has severely undermined fair and equal access to justice for people of all parts of society. It seems highly questionable whether the 'British Bill of Rights'’ or indeed the 'Victims Law' will strengthen the rights of all people equally.


Disability is only mentioned briefly in the Conservative manifesto. The party’s commitment to give mental health equal priority with physical health is welcome, as is its pledge to integrate health and social care. The manifesto aims to halve the disability employment gap, which could make a significant difference to thousands of disabled people across the UK. However, no detail is provided on how the party would achieve this. As the party has pledged to cut red tape and social spending, it seems implausible that it would act to prevent discrimination by employers or extend the Access to Work scheme, which other parties set out an intention to do.

While disability benefits are exempted from the benefit freeze and extra support is pledged for informal carers, the Conservative manifesto also mentions cutting welfare benefits for people who refuse treatment for substance dependency or obesity. Given the pledge to save £12 billion, further restrictions of spending on disabled people cannot be ruled out. In addition, the manifesto’s explicit mention of disability hate crime legislation is at odds with the party’s intention to abolish the Human Rights Act.


An increasingly fragmented educational and training provision poses a challenge for the new government. The Conservative party sets out a vision for education policy that promises to be inclusive and address long-standing inequities. However, coherent links with wider social policy areas are not always evident, and few new initiatives have been costed appropriately. Little mention is made of trusting the teaching profession to deliver without continued political interference in the curriculum. The biggest challenge will be to address the root causes of educational under-achievement, which can be cultural, long-standing and deeply embedded in some communities.


Rather than reflecting on the nature, quality and sustainability of employment, the overt focus in the manifesto is on job creation. There is a failure to acknowledge the availability and suitability of jobs. A language of coerciveness also prevails in addressing youth unemployment: "We will replace the Jobseeker's Allowance for 18-21 year-olds with a Youth Allowance that will be time-limited to six months, after which young people will have to take an apprenticeship, a traineeship or do daily community work for their benefits". There is a gap between stated aspiration and policies that are needed to achieve a Living Wage and equality in the job market. More detail is required to inspire confidence in the party’s ability to address these issues. In addition, there is a bias towards employers with the manifesto seeking more restrictions on trade unions, while promising less regulation for employers.

Fiscal Policy

The Conservative party manifesto emphasises economic growth very strongly, setting the target to become the "most prosperous major economy in the world by the 2030s". Fiscal policy is the main tool available to the government to influence the level of demand in the economy and therefore employment and growth. However, our expert notes that the Conservative party is pre-occupied with using fiscal policy to reduce the budget deficit to an arbitrary level. This intention may reflect misplaced optimism as reducing a budget deficit is not something a government can fully control, and the complex interplay of assumptions underpinning the party’s deficit-cutting proposals has been insufficiently explored in the manifesto. There is also insufficient information on how the party will respond to potential failures to meet specified deficit targets, which are inevitable in practice.


The manifesto lacks a system-wide view of healthcare, which includes satisfying work and a balanced diet alongside good housing, education and transport as well as greater social equality. It fails to connect the dots between well-being and secure, balanced employment and therefore displays a lack of broad understanding of how to set the conditions for preventative care. The manifesto prioritises institutions over community-based care, and while it pledges greater access to healthcare services, these pledges are supported by funding figures that are insufficiently detailed from source to implementation.


The Conservative manifesto fails to respond adequately to the challenge of adapting the housing market to rapidly changing trends in household circumstances, resources and preferences. It disproportionally focuses on the fate of the first time buyer with more diverse needs being neglected as a result. With respect to London, no mention is made of the consequences of spiralling housing prices for the use of temporary accommodation and levels of statutory and hidden homelessness. In other parts of the country, pressing issues such as the poor standard of private rented properties at the lower end of the market and the need to revive local regeneration programmes are overlooked.

While the party notes the rise of ’generation rent’, it rejects more regulation and instead encourages landlords to offer longer-term tenancies. Furthermore, there are no innovative solutions to long-standing structural peculiarities of the British housing market such as an over-emphasis on owner-occupation, serious lack of investment in social housing, an inefficient, expensive and ill-targeted housing benefit regime and an unduly permissive regime for the private rented sector. There is no commitment to abolishing the ‘Bedroom Tax’ for under occupied council homes. In contrast, the party is silent on unlocking access to homes of more affluent older owner-occupiers, which are under-occupied to a far greater extent than council homes. There is further silence on the need to restore empty dwellings to occupancy and on the issue of land taxation.


The manifesto sets out punitive measures that will exacerbate the precariousness many migrants experience. While research shows that immigration brings net benefits to the welfare state, the Conservative party takes a tough stance on migrants’ access to social welfare. It seeks to only permit access to key benefits after four years’ residency and will require EU and non-EU migrants to find a job within six months should they become unemployed. Such an approach undermines migrants’ ability to support themselves and their families, find affordable housing and live without the threat of deportation and destitution. The Conservative party plans to drastically cut low-skilled migration, which will have detrimental ramifications for local economies. Its plans to “deport first, appeal later” regardless of family situation also mean that the threat of deportation could extend to those who have lived in the UK for decades. Such proposals are likely to exacerbate migration-related poverty. However, the commitment to tackling the exploitation of migrant workers is welcome.

Migration and Security

Feargal Cochrane, University of Kent
Conservative 1
Greens 4
Labour 2
LibDems 3

There are multiple perceptions and understandings of migration and security. Some of them are rooted in evidence and experience, while others are driven by fear and misperception. Regardless of which party or coalition forms the next government, the election will have been valuable if it promotes a serious debate about migration and security in the UK context.

At present, migration tends to be conflated with immigration: as an election issue it is those coming into the UK rather than those who leave that provide the focus of attention. To deal with this issue effectively, policymakers must address its connection to wider economic and social policy, and also look at ways in which inward immigration can contribute to security over the long run. Internationally, the UK must also take action to reduce the likelihood of extremism and violence by targeting pernicious forms of political and economic inequality that often manifest themselves in these ways.1 To be truly sustainable, security in the context of migration needs to address the underlying causes of instability and see security as a collective and ongoing endeavour. In this regard, a narrow focus on physical and territorial aspects of security, as represented by border control agencies, surveillance and response to threat, is often unhelpful.

Together we need to move away from the idea that migration is a matter of control, borders costs, and impact on national identity, and toward a more realistic understanding of the way in which social, economic and political goals can be achieved. Unfortunately, media representation of this issue and political pressure to reduce the deficit, have reduced the amount of space that is needed to engage with security and immigration in a productive way.

A major challenge for the next government will be to reframe the debate on migration and security, moving it away from a populist agenda driven by fear and xenophobia. Currently, the main parties have pledged to control the numbers of migrants coming into the UK and to establish new mechanisms of border control that will ensure that visitors to the UK are closely monitored. Often, immigration will be explicitly linked to schemes that promote de-radicalisation.

Starting first with the major parties, Labour provides a mixed message to potential immigrants, claiming they are valued on the one hand but combining this with a raft of new restrictions. For example, they write that ‘Britain has seen historically high levels of immigration in recent years, including low-skilled migration, which has given rise to public anxiety about its effects on wages, on our public services, and on our shared way of life... the system needs to be controlled and managed so that it is fair' (p.49). Worryingly, the manifesto does not say what it means by low-skilled migration, or state what it sees as fair. Indeed, Labour fail even to state what levels of immigration (from the EU and beyond) they regard as being optimal for Britain. Beyond this, Labour draws an explicit connection between immigration, security and control mechanisms, within a context of a territorially defined containment strategy. They write that, 'Labour’s plan starts with stronger borders. We will recruit an additional 1,000 borders staff… We will introduce stronger controls to prevent those who have committed serious crimes coming to Britain, and to deport those who commit crimes while they are here’ (p.50).

The Conservative Party is more strident about immigration in tone but they differ from Labour only in scale of what they propose rather than in how migration and security are conceived. Together with UKIP they tend to conflate immigration, economic pressure (on the NHS and welfare budgets) and EU membership. They write that ‘we will negotiate new rules with the EU, so that people will have to be earning here for a number of years before they can claim benefits, including the tax credits that top up low wages.’ (p.29). The background to all this, is the problematic idea that migration functions as a drain on UK economy, something that can be seen when they write ‘we have already banned housing benefit for EU jobseekers, and restricted other benefits, including Jobseeker's Allowance. We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.’ (p.30)

The Green Party comes closest to tacking the themes of migration from a sustainable security point of view. There is an understanding of the links between violent extremism and the political structures within which it is created. They also acknowledge that strong borders, surveillance and militarisation will not be enough for real security over a longer timeframe. Indeed, the Greens draw an explicit connection between UK military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya ‘and the increased terrorist threat closer to home’ (p.70). The framing of migration is much more positive than that of the other parties. It is seen as a longstanding and natural fact of life that has enriched the UK’s in terms of language, culture and the British way of life over hundreds of years. The Greens write that ‘we live in an interconnected world, which brings huge benefits as well as drawbacks. Decisions that we make affect people in other countries and events in other countries affect us.’ (p68). Here, security is understood correctly as a collective endeavour.

The Liberal Democrats are more progressive than the other parties but less forward looking than the Greens. They concentrate on fairness and openness rather than safety and threat as their key operating principles. Unsurprisingly, their manifesto points out the positive side of inward migration for economic growth and the role of immigration as a driver of prosperity. They state that, ‘immigration procedures must be robust and fair, and the UK must remain open to visitors who boost our economy, and migrant workers who play a vital role in business and public services’ (p33). Drawing also upon the principle of individual liberty and rights, their approach takes sustainable security seriously.

Finally, UKIP does not look at sustainable security in any serious way. The manifesto title, Believe in Britain, is a portent of its content in the context of migration and security issues. It focuses heavily on the link between inward migration and security, although it frames the problem as being membership of the EU rather than migrants themselves. UKIP’s claim to targeting structures rather than immigrants per se, provides the core of the manifesto. Ultimately, they argue that security over immigration is impossible while the UK continues its membership of the European Union (p12). Thus, inward migration and security becomes a driver for withdrawal from EU membership. Beyond this, they connect inward migration to an imminent security threat writing that, ‘the sheer weight of numbers, combined with rising birth rates (particularly to immigrant mothers) and an ageing population, is pushing public services to breaking point. (p11). Immigration is understood to be a threat to jobs, and a source of pressure on welfare provision and the NHS, housing affordability and availability, the education system and more broadly to the quality of British life.

In the context of migration and security the UKIP manifesto rejects multiculturalism and argues for minority ethnic and religious groups to ‘integrate’ into ‘our majority culture’ (p61). This approach fails to offer much succour to migrant fears of cultural assimilation, and fails to appreciate that successful social integration requires movement from both majority and minority groups.

Money and Banking

The 2008-2009 crises in the financial services sector precipitated the austerity measures. The Conservative party accepts that the UK economy remains dependent on financial services, but offers no comprehensive plan to make finance work for the social good. The commitment to selling off Lloyds and RBS is on the cards to reduce the public debt, but this is more likely to be at a discount. In the event it is sold at a discount, it risks reinforcing the "too big to fail" perception, normalising a culture of privatising gains and socialising losses onto the tax payer and incentivising risky behaviour by the sector. On a more positive note, the proposals for more equitable tax contributions from the finance and banking sector are welcome.

Sustainability and the Environment

There is some irony for a party which uses a tree as its logo that it has not made sustainability and the environment a more integral part of its policy making. The Conservative manifesto does not question whether perpetual economic growth can be sustainable, given that the UK has historically over-used planetary resources and carbon sinks. Climate change is arguably the key development issue of the century. However, there are no programmatic details or targets, nor does the party acknowledge the UK's 'climate debt' to the global south. While the manifesto covers several areas of environmental policy, including energy, transport, housing, access to green spaces and climate change, additional important areas such as farming and food security are not examined from an environmental sustainability perspective.  Strong emphasis is placed on managing the supply side of environmental resources, with energy featuring prominently.

International Aid*

There is consensus among international development professionals that aid must first and foremost be assessed in terms of its impact upon the people whose lives it seeks to improve. Compared to other EU countries, the proposals made in the Conservative manifesto aid appear relatively forward-looking. However, their strong focus on extreme poverty reduction is limiting, and they see UK security and prosperity as the main goals of international development.

Development in poor countries depends on much more than the amount of aid they receive. Meaningful development requires strong domestic institutions, changes in global processes that produce poverty in the first place and fairer international institutions. Implementing these wider development policies requires confrontation of domestic interests such as the City of London who have long supported a lax global regulatory regime. Such trade-offs need to be openly debated. The Conservative manifesto recognises the importance of changing domestic institutions, but fails to take a stand on the inequities in the global economy that create poverty.

Beyond Aid*

Jason Hickel, LSE

Political rhetoric often reduces international development to the question of foreign aid. Yet in reality the prospect of development in poor countries depends on much more than the amount of aid they receive. For example, a growing body of scholarship shows that aid does little good in contexts where domestic institutions are poor. This literature calls for interventions that promote democracy, the rule of law, civil society, media freedom, and rights for women and minorities. A second body of scholarship points out that meaningful development requires changing the aspects of the global economic order that produce poverty in the first place, such as foreign debt regimens that siphon resources away from public services; illicit financial flows that drain poor countries of tax revenue; land grabs and other forms of resource theft that displace communities and deplete natural value; processes of financial speculation that drive up food prices; and climate change patterns that cause droughts, flooding, and fires. Finally, scholars argue that development requires fairer international institutions: the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO need to be democratised so that poor countries have a say in the formulation of global economic policy; multinational companies need to be held to robust labour and environmental standards; and trade rules must be rebalanced to allow poor countries to make use of tariffs and subsidies where necessary. These interventions are essential to ensuring that poor countries have the resources and political latitude they need to reduce poverty, fulfil rights, and promote the flourishing of their own citizens. Of course, implementing such policies will require confronting certain domestic interests. For example: debt cancellation would mean challenging private creditors; clamping down on tax evasion would mean challenging the City of London; and so on. Such trade-offs need to be openly debated.

All of the political parties recognise that development must go beyond aid, although they differ in their analysis of what this should entail. Both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats focus on changing practices and institutional arrangements within other countries. The Conservatives believe that the development agenda should promote democracy, property rights, free media, open institutions, family planning, and gender equality, with a special focus on ending early/forced marriage, female circumcision, and violence against women and girls. The Liberal Democrats echo the call for democracy, free media, gender equality, and the end of forced marriage and female circumcision, and add to this agenda a promise to advance human rights, free speech, and open Internet around the world – what they see as part of a “whole-government approach to development.” The Liberal Democrats also seek the decriminalization of homosexuality, and are explicit that development gains should benefit all people regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, belief, and sexual orientation.

The Green Party manifesto focuses much more on redressing the inequities that characterise the global economic order. The party expresses a strong commitment to debt cancellation/reduction in order to allow poor countries to fund public services; it wants to reform the United Nations to make it more democratic; it wants to enhance poor countries’ policy space so that they can determine their own economic fates; it wants to end tax evasion, tax avoidance, and transfer mispricing; it promises to withdraw British support for the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which it sees as promoting Western land grabs and food monopolies in the global South; and it wants to protect the rights of indigenous people to their land. On the issue of trade, the Green Party rejects the idea that multinational corporations should be able to sue sovereign states for regulations that compromise their expected future profits; they express a commitment to “fair trade” over “free trade”; and they argue that trade should be rebalanced in favour of poor countries and should respect ecological limits. Given this stance, they promise to reject TTIP1. The Greens also have a strong focus on labour issues: they want to investigate the possibility of a global minimum wage; they promise to ratify anduphold ILO conventions on labour standards; and they will ensure that British companies operating in the global south observe higher standards on labour and the environment.

Some of these policies are echoed by the other parties. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats both promise to clamp down on tax evasion through country-by-country reporting. The Liberal Democrats go further and suggest they will tackle tax havens, and promise to push multinational corporations to pay fair taxes in developing countries. On the matter of work, Labour is the only party besides the Greens that call for fair treatment of workers throughout the British supply chain. Labour also – uniquely – promises to advocate for free health care in developing countries. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats include fair trade in the mix, but UKIP proposes to give the world’s poorest countries free access to the British market as a poverty-reduction mechanism. It should be noted that this is UKIP’s only development proposal; the party is otherwise committed to dramatically reducing Britain’s development agenda by closing down DFID and folding its essential functions into the foreign office.

Climate change is recognised as an important development issue by the Green Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. All three parties promise to push for a strong climate deal in Paris in December 2015 that will keep global warming below the IPCC’s 2C target, and promise to assist poor countries to adapt to climate change. The Liberal Democrats lay out a robust plan to promote low-carbon investments, reduce emissions in Europe, develop global reporting for fossil fuel companies on their asset risks, and ensure that all trade and investment agreements include sustainability clauses and support environmental goals. The Liberal Democrats also promise to halt net global deforestation by 2020, clamp down on illegal and unsustainable timber trade (and fishing and hunting), and want to create large protected reserves in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The Greens, for their part, are the only party to openly acknowledge Britain’s “climate debt” to the global south, given Britain’s disproportionate historical emissions. The Greens are also unique in proposing a policy of “Contraction and Convergence,” whereby rich countries will use less finite energy so that poor countries can use more, moving us toward equitable and sustainable global energy sharing. The Conservatives, for their part, claim they will “work to prevent climate change and assist the poorest in adapting to it,” but they offer no programmatic details or targets. UKIP appears to be against any form of climate regulation.

UKIP’s trade preferences could be a powerful force for development, but given that this is their only policy – in a context of an otherwise diminished development agenda – the party cannot be trusted to meet the challenges that our world faces on this front. The Conservatives promise to push for wide-ranging changes to domestic institutions, but they do not take a stand on the inequities in the global economy that drive poverty. The Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Green Party do take such a stand. Of these, the Greens offer the most robust solutions, and their policies are the most likely to enhance the ability of developing countries to promote the flourishing of their own citizens. Climate change – which is perhaps the key development issue of the century – is addressed most strongly by the Green Party, followed closely by the Liberal Democrats and then by Labour; the Conservatives and UKIP, by contrast, do not see climate change mitigation as a priority.

*No UK scoring for the 2 international chapters


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