General Election: our take on the party manifestos

With all the main party manifestos now in the public domain, we have our first chance during this 2019 General Election to look at the stand out policies, the missed opportunities and the serious mistakes they contain.
photo of Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth
By Dave Timms    |      Published:  27 Nov 2019    |      5 minute read

General Election campaigns always enter a new phase once the political parties have published their manifestos. It’s the point at which their programme for Government either blooms or wilts in the glare of public and media scrutiny.

Here at Friends of the Earth we always trawl through the pledges and commitments made on the environment and publish our assessment of what each major UK-wide party has proposed. Our aim is to get all the parties to adopt the strongest policies, publicly commit to them, and subsequently hold them to account.

Public concern about the climate and nature emergency has rocketed in recent months, driven by witnessing the harsh reality of climate breakdown in wildfires, floods and storms, but also by the extraordinary efforts of the school strikers, Greta Thunburg, Extinction Rebellion and thousands of climate heroes in communities across the UK. The result is that politicians have responded by acknowledging, and using, language such as "climate emergency". The question is: have they adopted the radical policies – on targets, spending, tax, regulation and legislation – needed to deliver a brighter future for all of us?

We’ve assessed the manifestos against our own climate manifesto and broken it down into topics for ease.  But this isn't a done deal. There's plenty of time for parties to make additional commitments (or point out pledges we might have missed), so our final tally will be published closer to polling day. 

Climate targets

Setting a new target of going carbon neutral by the middle of the century was a step forward when it was announced earlier this year, but tackling the climate emergency means we must be more ambitious and go faster. The Greens say they will get there by 2030, Lib Dems by 2045. Labour say the bulk of our emissions must be gone by 2030 (though they aren’t entirely clear on the final end date). Only the Conservatives are not committed to going faster than "net zero by 2050". None of the parties say they’ll rule out carbon off-setting, but Labour and Lib Dems have commitments to stop funding fossil fuels abroad.

Transport

A key challenge on transport plans is deciphering funding commitments. The Greens propose a massive programme of investment. Lib Dems too. Labour have a very big overall carbon reduction spending commitment (and say they’ll change Treasury rules to ensure all Government investment is compatible with environment targets), but that commitment doesn’t currently include a break down to see what is spent on transport. The Conservatives seem very proud of their eye-watering pledge to spend almost £30 billion on road building (just think what they could have done spending that on something sensible).

Labour pledge free bus travel for under 25s. Only the Greens promise to scrap HS2 (the Tories are hardly enthusiastic, but sitting on the fence doesn’t cut carbon emissions). The Tories do have a strong pledge to fund the roll-out of electric vehicle charging points, but fail to bring forward the date to phase out internal combustion engine cars by 2030. All parties promise new legal targets for clean air – Labour, Lib Dem and Greens commit to World Health Organisation standards – but none by 2030.

Aviation

This topic is usually filed under "to do later" for Governments. Only the Green Party really faces the scale of the challenge by opposing all airport expansion. Conservatives and Labour both fudge the Heathrow expansion issue. Lib Dems don’t, but leave open regional airport expansion. The Greens and Lib Dems also back the frequent flyer levy.

Energy

Huge game-changing commitments to a roll-out of renewable energy (with the money to back it up) from Greens, Labour and Lib Dems. Well done! The Tories rightly big up off-shore wind (as do the others), but completely ignore on-shore wind and solar. One of the best things about this General Election: NOT ONE PARTY IS BACKING FRACKING!

Homes

The Tories are lagging behind when it comes to policy on insulation, with by far the weakest commitment to fund home insulation. They also completely fail to mention a plan for rolling out low-carbon heating (such as heat pumps), in contrast to the other parties. The Tories do have a spending commitment for social housing decarbonisation buried in their manifesto costs document, but it’s pretty small. For the other three parties, transforming our housing stock to make all our homes warm and low carbon is one of the stand-out policies of this election.

Food, farming and land use

All parties have made pledges to increase tree planting. However, only Labour have promised the scale of planting* needed to meet our target of doubling UK tree cover. Both Lib Dems and Greens promise a food strategy to increase sustainable food consumption and measures to reduce food waste. The Greens will set a target for pesticide reduction.

Nature

It's great to see all parties back setting new legally binding targets for the restoration of nature and biodiversity. Labour, Lib Dems and Greens promise additional funding to enforce them, and Labour backs greater use of environmental tribunals. And the Lib Dems, Conservatives and Greens specifically mention restoration of peatland, which is a vital store of carbon. Tackling plastic pollution features in all the manifestos with a variety of policies including deposit schemes, bans on exporting plastic waste and making producers responsible for their products. The Lib Dems are especially comprehensive.

Local authorities

Only the Lib Dems promise to introduce mandatory carbon budgets for councils. They, the Greens and Labour would amend planning rules in favour of the environment and renewables. And all parties bar the Tories would remove the current block in the planning system against new onshore wind turbines.

Brexit

The Conservatives are alone in not ruling out a No Deal Brexit – which would be a disaster for the environment. They do however pledge that post-Brexit agricultural subsidies will only be available for farming that protects the environment, and that they will legislate to maintain environmental standards after Brexit. However there is little or no detail from the Conservatives on how the Office for Environmental Protection will have the necessary legal powers or funding to police those standards and environmental principles (and elsewhere in their manifesto there is worrying language about limiting judicial review – a vital means of ensure environmental law in upheld). Both Labour and the Greens commit to legislation to give Parliament oversight of UK trade negotiations if Brexit happens, and align with the EU’s high environmental standards. The Lib Dems would revoke Article 50 which would mean EU environmental legislation would continue to apply in the UK.

Rights and democracy

The Green Party specifically mention the need to protect the right to protest. They, Labour and Lib Dems all back votes for over 16s, but Labour don’t support proportional representation and Lib Dems don’t seem to have any plans to reform the Lobbying Act. Nothing positive to note from the Conservatives here.

Summary

At the end of all that, how are the parties doing overall? So far it seems that the Green Party most consistently meet our demands with a manifesto of great ambition and numerous detailed policies. Labour and the Lib Dems come next, both of whom are very strong on ambition and funding for renewable power and home energy efficiency, but have important gaps in other areas. The Conservative Party are bringing up the rear, with policies which are generally less ambitious, entirely absent, or in some cases activity damaging.

However this isn’t the end of the story. Our aim at this election is to persuade all the parties to adopt the strongest possible environmental policies overall (to which we will hold them if elected). The manifestos are the main way they set out their platform, but important pledges can be made throughout the election, in TV debates or mini-manifestos for example. So, we’ll continue to record their promises to act and produce a final score closer to polling day. Watch this space.

 

*This article was amended on 28 November following Labour's announcement to plant 2 billion trees by 2040.