December 2019

Policies on and around employment: comparing the manifestos

The 2019 general election campaigning period is reaching its final stretch and all of the party manifestos are in the public domain. We have read and evaluated what some of the major parties have pledged for the UK as far as the world of employment is concerned. We have also included comments from one  the UK’s leading economic commentators Laurie Macfarlane (IIPP and OpenDemocracy).


We must note that this review is of the manifestos only, and does not take into account the current government’s past pledges or record, nor past statements from any party; we are concerned with what each are promising in this election only. For example, while the Green Party have in the past committed to some form of pay ratios within firms, they have not included this policy in their 2019 manifesto and so this is not included here.


We have evaluated the party stances according to the degree to which the policies would enhance democracy, bolster the UK’s economy, redistribute economic power more fairly and improve the lives of ordinary people. We have favoured policies that take action over those that merely promise a future decision. This is why we have judged parties’ unfavourably in cases where a mere ‘review’ is planned whilst other parties’ have taken more definitive, progressive stances. For example, the Labour Party has proposed a trial of basic income, whilst the Green Party have committed to it and we have favoured the latter in our evaluation.


All information and quotations have been taken from the parties’ manifestos (linked at the bottom).


The results are summarised in the below grid, followed by summaries of each issue. We have coded each party’s position with different colours according to our evaluation of their stated or expressed stance on the issue at hand:

Most progressive

Uncertain / has some merit

Below standard

For example, we see a Living Wage as a crucial update of the minimum wage legislation so have coded parties favourably depending on how close they get to this mark. Equally, zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships are some of the most exploitative and damaging work practices around, and so we have favoured harsher stances towards these phenomena. We’ve also included an economic idea that is relatively new to the political landscape in the UK but that is a key focus of Autonomy’s: basic income.

Workers' Rights

Labour have pledged to create a Ministry for Employment Rights with an extensive remit. Amongst other things, it would increase wages through sectoral collective bargaining; mandate that breaks during shifts be paid; require cancelled shifts to be paid and proper notice for changes in hours given; give all workers the right to flexible working; extend statutory maternity pay from nine to 12 months;  double paternity leave from two weeks to four and increasing statutory paternity pay; introduce statutory bereavement leave, guaranteeing workers time off to grieve the loss of close family members or following miscarriage. 


The Lib Dems’ approach to workers’ rights focuses mainly on the ‘gig economy’. They pledge to establish a Worker Protection Enforcement Authority to protect those in precarious work. Legal changes would mean that  flexible working is open to all from day one in the job – although they caveat this by exempting employers from this imperative if there are ‘significant business reasons for why that is not possible’.  Their pledges also includes reviewing the tax and National Insurance status of employees, dependent contractors and freelancers to ‘ensure fair and comparable treatment’. They propose shifting the burden of proof in employment tribunals regarding employment status from the individual to the employer, and strengthening the ability of unions to represent workers effectively in the modern economy, including a right of access to workplaces.


The Conservatives mentions ‘raising standards’ in the area of workers’ rights after a Brexit deal has been achieved, but no detail is given. The SNP’s manifesto pledges to press for the devolution for employment law so that Scottish Parliament can protect workers’ rights, but no positive account of these rights is given. They add that they would act on the Taylor Review findings to give precarious workers access to standard employment rights.


The Green Party pledge to maintain the workers’ rights enshrined in EU law and ‘maintain and enhance’ these rights in any future trade deals.

The Living Wage

Conservatives have committed to set the living wage at two-thirds of median earnings (projected to be £10.50/hr by 2024), for everybody over the age of 21 (currently 25), within 5 years.


Labour has committed to a national living wage of £10/hr, immediately, for all workers, while the Greens advocate for a £12 Living Wage – which is the highest of all the parties.


The Liberal Democrats do not commit to a number, but pledge ‘an independent review to consult on how to set a genuine Living Wage across all sectors’.


The SNP pledge a Real Living Wage – which is currently £9.00 in Scotland – which is significantly less than the rate promised by the Conservatives, Labour and the Greens.

Zero-Hour Contracts

The Lib Dems promise the establishment of a new ‘dependent contractor’ employment status in between employment and self-employment, with entitlements to basic rights such as minimum earnings levels, sick pay and holiday entitlement. They pledge to set a 20 per cent higher minimum wage for people on zero-hour contracts at times of normal demand to compensate them for the uncertainty of fluctuating hours of work.


The Greens plan a review of current employment law to close loopholes that allow employers in the gig economy to deny gig workers key rights. Gig economy workers would receive at least the current minimum wage, and have job security, sick leave, holiday pay and pension provision.


Labour plan to ban zero-hours contracts completely and so do the SNP.


The Conservatives make no mention of concrete future plans in this area, but do pledge a right to ‘request a more predictable contract’.

Unpaid Internships

The Labour Party  have pledged to ban unpaid internships outright and are the only party to do so.

Working Time Reductions

Labour have committed to move the UK labour market to a 32-hour working week within ten years, with each sector to have its own method of achieving this reduction (with the oversight of trade unions). Another Labour policy on working-time, which could be seen as a transition step towards the former is to introduce four new public holidays.


The Green Party have not committed to a strong policy on this issue, but have pledged to ‘support’ employers to ‘explore’ a four-day week in their firms.


No other party mentions working time reductions.

Pay Ratios

Only the Labour Party have pledged pay ratios, at 20:1 in the public sector.

Basic income

Only the Greens and Labour mention basic income in this election.


The Green Party has pledged an £89 per week basic income for all adults. Above this, certain groups will receive more. Pensioners will receive a weekly payment totalling £178; disabled people will receive an additional supplement to their UBI, as will lone parents and lone pensioners; people who were reliant on Housing Benefit before UBI was introduced will continue to receive it, so that they can cover their rent; families with an income of under £50,000 per year will receive an additional supplement of £70 per week for each of their first two children and a further £50 per week for each additional child; families with an income of over £50,000 per year will receive smaller additional supplements per child, with the amount decreasing further the more a family earns.


The basic income is part of the Green New Deal that is central to the Greens’ manifesto. They will draw directly on income from the Carbon Tax to help fund  the UBI, to make sure that the proceeds of the tax on carbon emissions help meet the cost of enabling people to make the transition to a carbon free future.


The Labour Party have pledged to pilot basic income.

Employee Representation

The Lib Dems have pledged a policy to ensure that there is at least one employee on the board of any large firm (250 employees or more). 


The Greens have proposed installing a 40% quota for women on major company boards. The SNP argue for greater diversity in the representation on boards and note that public sector boards in Scotland are on track for a 50-50 gender balance by 2020. They add that they would support UK legislation to enforce this in the private sector.


Labour have pledged that one-third of seats on boards be reserved for elected worker-directors which would also give them more control over executive pay.


The Conservatives have no mention of any related policy.

Employee Ownership

Only Labour and the Liberal Democrats have policies on employee ownership.


Labour are pledging an Employee Ownership Scheme. This policy would require companies of over 250 employees, each year, transfer at least 1% of its shares into an ‘inclusive ownership fund’, up to a maximum total of 10%. These shares would be controlled by the workers and have the same voting rights as other investors, as well as allowing employees to receive up to £500 a year in dividends.


The Lib Dems have pledged a right to request shares in large companies.

Trade Unions

Labour have a number of trade union-focused pledges. They would: allow trade unions to use secure electronic and workplace ballots; remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action; strengthen and enforce trade unions’ right of entry to workplaces to organise, meet and represent their members and to recruit; ban union-busting, strengthen protection of trade union representatives against unfair dismissal and union members from intimidation, harassment, threats and blacklisting; repeal anti-trade union legislation including the Trade Union Act 2016 and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions to help them win a better deal for working people; simplify the law around union recognition; give union reps adequate time off for union duties.


The Greens have simply pledged to ‘revive the role of democratic unions’, although no further detail is given.


The Conservative Party have no pledges to increase worker democracy in workplaces.


The Lib Dems broadly propose strengthening the ability of unions to represent workers effectively in the modern economy, including a right of access to workplaces.

Universal Credit

The Labour Party and the Greens have both pledged to scrap Universal Credit. The Lib Dems recognise the need for change but pledge to only reform Universal Credit. The Conservatives will continue the roll out of Universal Credit but promise to end the benefit freeze amongst other small tweaks. The SNP note that Universal Credit ‘is fundamentally flawed and is clearly not working for people’, but rather than calling for its abolition they promote changes ‘that could be made immediately which will effectively deliver a new radically different benefit that supports rather than penalises people’. In the meantime they advocate a stop to the migration to Universal Credit that we are currently seeing.

Labour also articulate first steps for a post-Universal Credit world are, although the detail is still thin on the ground. They intend to ‘design an alternative system that treats people with dignity and respect’, and will implement an emergency package of reforms to mitigate some of the worst features of UC while they work on developing a replacement system.

Laurie Macfarlane on Industrial Strategy in this election

Laurie Macfarlane is Research Fellow at IIPP and Economics Editor at openDemocracy. Below is his assessment of the industrial strategies of each party in this election:

The Conservatives

One of the first things Theresa May did when she became Prime Minister in 2016 was create a new government department, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Led by Greg Clark, the government published its new industrial strategy, ‘Building a Britain fit for the future’, in 2017. While far from perfect, and held back by the Treasury’s reluctance to commit resources, it was a welcome shift from a party that had long viewed industrial strategy as a dirty word.


Fast forward to 2019 however, and term “industrial strategy” is not mentioned in Conservative party’s manifesto. Aside from “getting Brexit done”, there is little in the way of a strategic plan for solving Britain’s systemic economic problems. Instead, the manifesto contains a series of vague, incremental pledges that have little strategic coherence. Examples include a Towns Fund to “help communities make sure their towns are safe to walk in and a pleasure to be in” and a new National Skills Fund – hardly the kind of systemic interventions the UK economy desperately needs. 


Perhaps the most interesting proposal relates to the creation of a new public agency for “high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government” – an idea that likely came from Dominic Cummings, who has long expressed interest in agencies such as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


Overall, however, the Conservative manifesto falls short on providing solutions to Britain’s systemic problems.

The Labour Party

The centrepiece of Labour’s manifesto is the party’s plan for a Green Industrial Revolution that will “create one million jobs in the UK to transform our industry, energy, transport, agriculture and our buildings, while restoring nature”. 


The party aims to achieve “the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030”, and backs this up with by credible plans to mobilise investment. A £250bn Green Transformation Fund will invest in green energy and transport and restore the natural environment across the country. A £150bn Social Transformation Fund will upgrade, hospitals and social care facilities. A new Sustainable Investment Board will bring together the Chancellor, Business Secretary and Bank of England Governor to co-ordinate investment, together with trade unions and business. A new National Investment Bank, backed up by a network of Regional Development Banks, will finance £250bn of investment across the economy. A new Post Bank, operated through the Post Office network, will be established to breathe new life into communities that have long been neglected. And a new Foundation Industries Sector Council will help carbon intensive industries like steel and glass decarbonise their operations, whilst also funding R&D into newer technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.


The party is also proposing to move key parts of the Treasury to the North of England, which should help tackle some of the deep rooted institutional problems that lie at the root of the UK’s unbalanced economy. 


Significantly, Labour is the only party that is placing ownership at the heart of its industrial strategy plans, with its proposals to take key utilities into public ownership and transfer 10% of company shares into ‘Inclusive Ownership Funds’ that will be collectively owned by employees.

Of all the manifestos, Labour’s manifesto represents the most comprehensive and detailed plan. The main manifesto document is supported by a number of technical papers and supporting documents, including tailored regional manifestos. Taken together, the manifesto amounts to a credible plan for the kind of industrial transformation that is required if we are to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrat manifesto sets out plans for an “ambitious National Industrial Strategy” and “Local Industrial Strategies” that will “incentivise clustering by businesses and universities with particular specialisations”. It states that the party will set a new legally binding target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045 at the latest, and “implement a comprehensive climate action plan, cutting emissions across all sectors.”


It also proposes a range of new funding mechanisms, including a £50 billion “Regional Rebalancing Programme for infrastructure spend across the UK”; a Just Transition Fund to “support communities negatively affected by policies to tackle the climate emergency”; a new Green Investment Bank; and plans for the British Business Bank to “perform a more central role in the economy”. 


There are also some novel ideas, such as introducing “a mechanism to allow the public to share in the profits made by tech companies in the use of their data” and implementing wellbeing budgets, following the example of New Zealand.


Overall however, the manifesto lacks the kind of systemic vision and scale that is present in Labour’s plans, and falls short in a number of key areas. Crucially, the manifesto suffers from a lack of detail, making it difficult to assess the credibility of the proposals.

The Green Party of England and Wales

Unsurprisingly, the Green Party has placed a bold Green New Deal at the heart of its manifesto, which it describes as “a ten-year plan ambitious enough to tackle climate and ecological breakdown at the scale and speed set out by science.” This involves proposals to transform energy, housing, transport, industry and farming.


The party highlights the need to move towards a circular economy, “designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”, and shifting from models of ownership to usership, such as with car-sharing platforms and neighbourhood libraries for tools and equipment.

Similar to Labour, the party is proposing to “get the UK on track to reducing climate emissions to net zero by 2030”, and is proposing to invest £100bn a year to achieve this goal. The manifesto also proposes “a new public banking infrastructure to help deliver our ambitious programme”, although details on this are sparse. 


To its credit, the Green Party is unique among all the parties for proposing “the rapid decommissioning of North Sea oil rigs and the phasing out of the UK’s remaining coal plants and coal.”


Overall, the Green Party’s manifesto represents a bold plan for moving towards a fairer and more sustainable economy. However, like the Liberal Democrat manifesto it suffers from a lack of detail in many areas.


The SNP manifesto stresses the need for “systemic reform of the economy” and states that “it is no longer enough to address economic injustice through redistribution using the tax and benefit system alone. Injustice needs to be tackled at source.” However, the manifesto itself contains few policies that match this rhetoric.


The manifesto states that the SNP will press the UK Government to introduce fit for purpose sector deals, “focussed on supporting productivity improvements right across the economy.” The party supports “direct intervention when firms fail to meet their legal and social obligations”, but the appetite for bold state intervention seems limited to when firms fail. 


A “Green Energy Deal” will support the party’s aim of reaching net zero emissions by 2045, and will include a “wave and tidal energy industrial strategy with adequate funding.” It also proposes using oil and gas receipts to create a Net Zero Fund to help pay for the energy transition, with 12% of the fund going to a Net Zero Industrial Strategy to help diversify the economies of oil hubs like Aberdeen, Falkirk and Shetland.


Overall, the SNP’s manifesto has much in common with the Liberal Democrat Manifesto: it contains some worthwhile ideas, but lacks the kind of systemic vision and scale that is present in Labour’s plans.

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