In response to the recent bishops’ letter offering guidance on voting in this year’s general election, we asked two Catholic Voices speakers active in the Conservative and Labour parties to interpret the letter in the light of their respective parties’ platforms. We have now asked those speakers to comment on their respective parties’ recently-published manifestos in the light of the bishops’ letter. Today, MARY CLARKSON writes about the Labour Party Manifesto. If you would like to respond or comment, or if you are interested in writing another well-argued piece urging Catholics to vote for another party, please email us at [email protected].
The Labour Party manifesto runs to 83 pages and, like all election manifestos, it is less the warm words and heart-tugging phrases that one should focus on than the recurrent themes. So here I want to focus as much on the themes as on specific pledges and see how they match up to the issues, which the Bishops highlighted in their recent letter.
Local decision making
One of the strongest themes running throughout the manifesto is the emphasis on subsidiarity. The term is not used specifically, but the concept is applied to many areas. For example in relation to health and education, it states:
Our public services are a measure of the strength and decency of our society. But we need a change in how we design them by pushing power down and organising them around individuals and families not centralised bureaucracies.
Later on, in the section on reforming government it goes on to say:
Instead of imposing change on communities, we will give them more control over schools, health care, policing, skills, housing and transport, making use of their insights into what works and what does not. We will promote and encourage a model of citizenship based on participation and shared responsibility.
Throughout the document there is an emphasis upon shaping communities and participating in local decision-making. This should be welcome to Catholics, for whom the principle of subsidiarity forms such a key part of Catholic Social teaching.
Reward for Hard Work
A lot of attention is given to the importance of rewarding hard work. Earlier promises on the National Minimum Wage (raising it to £8 an hour by October 2019), supporting a Living Wage through such means as government procurement, and banning zero-hours contracts, are re-stated in the manifesto. The Labour Party shares the concern, raised in the Bishops’ Letter, that the dignity of work has been undermined by poor wages and insecure employment which has meant that many are unable to provide decent housing and food for their families without State support.
In addition to commitments to improving pay and conditions, promises of more free childcare, and better paternity leave are repeated in recognition of the importance of family life in building a more secure society.
Mending Broken Markets
In the sections on business there are ideas which call to mind some of Pope Francis’ comments in Evangelii Gaudium on ethical capitalism.
Pope Francis talks of the importance of money being at the service of humanity rather than as a means of wielding power. In the Labour Party Manifesto, too, there is an emphasis on capitalism with a human face. Worker participation – favoured in Laborem Exercens – is proposed and employers are to be given a greater say in how apprenticeships are managed. Support is promised for social enterprises and cooperatives by improving their access to growth finance through the new British Investment Bank. 1.5 million small business properties are promised a freeze on business rates.
There is a recognition that some markets upon which families rely are not working for the benefit of society as a whole. Too little competition amongst energy providers has pushed up prices and left many families in fuel poverty. Rail fares are the highest in Europe and many bus routes which are a life line for rural communities and those without a car, have been cut. The Labour Party promises to reform the utilities industries so that they meet the needs of families and commuters.
Health and Social Care
The Bishops’ Letter reminds us to value each person. It talks of “the frail elderly person needing care and facing the frontier of death”. One of the biggest policy commitments made by the Labour Party is to bring health and social care together so that a whole-person approach can be adopted that can deal with physical, mental and social care together and which recognises the uniqueness and dignity of each person. Vulnerable older people are to have more of a say in their own care and are to be helped to remain at home rather than in hospital if this is what they wish.
The Labour Party shares the belief, as stated in the Bishops’ Letter, that “a commitment to support the family should be at the heart of social and political life”. There is a welcome commitment in the Manifesto to revive Sure Start Centres for family support, which often identify problems right at the beginning and work with the wider family to include grandparents and other relatives. The commitment to build at least 200,000 homes by 2020 is reaffirmed here, together with a commitment to make three-year tenancies the norm and to improve living standards in rented homes.
The section on education includes a promise to make age-appropriate sex and relationships education compulsory, to embed character education, and to root out homophobic bullying. Catholic education provides a moral framework that guarantees equal respect for all and values love and commitment in relationships. One would hope that when this policy is implemented, the character education which Catholic schools provide is understood and supported.
Promises to crack down on gangmasters who exploit migrant workers protect the dignity of those coming from abroad to seek work. At the same time, they protect existing workers whose livelihoods are threatened by agencies who undercut wages.
The emphasis in this section is very much on border control and on integration. Important though these are, it would have been good to have seen more recognition of the many benefits that immigrants have brought to this country. As a community that has been enriched by the arrival of people from all over the world, I think that a lot of Catholics would have welcomed a more positive tone here.
Rehabilitation of Prisoners
The rehabilitation of prisoners is never a major vote winner but the belief in forgiveness and the chance for people to make a new start is key for Catholics. The opening paragraph of the Bishops’ Letter talks of “the prisoner in his cell in search of redemption”. The Labour Party’s commitment to increase the amount of time which prisoners have for working and learning is good, as is the promise to measure prisons by the success they have in reforming prisoners and reducing re-offending.
While Labour remains committed to the EU, in another nod to subsidiarity, it promises to give national governments a greater say in EU legislation.
One of the welcome pledges made in this section is the creation of a Global Envoy for Religious Freedom. It is a recognition of the importance of faith communities and the fact that many of those now suffering in the Middle East and in Africa are suffering because of religious intolerance.
Echoing the bishops’ reminder that we should share our wealth with poorer nations, as Catholics we ought to welcome the commitment to maintaining Overseas Aid at its current levels. The priority to educate women and children is one shared by the Catholic Church as one of the largest providers of education worldwide.
In summary, there is much in the Labour Party Manifesto which Catholics can welcome, and which chimes with Catholic Social Teaching and the concerns of the bishops. A more positive note on immigration and on the role of faith communities in Britain would have been welcome, but the emphasis on protecting the dignity of work, the security of the family and local decision-making are urgent and relevant.