Is the Labour manifesto ‘regressive’, and how?

January 27, 2018

Some very quick points about the claim that Corbyn’s Labour’s policies are ‘regressive’. This has become a common centrist critique of Corbyn’s Labour (occupying the discursive space vacated by “Corbyn’s leadership will condemn Labour to electoral oblivion”). But the basic point covers a range of different arguments. I want to typologise those arguments, very quickly and crudely, into three categories.

First – the argument that means testing of government provision is intrinsically better than universalism. This argument is bad and wrong – it grounds public provision of welfare and services in a social ontology which divides the deserving from the undeserving, and which can easily be repurposed for reactionary social policy (the deserving versus the undeserving poor); it leaves redistributive policy more vulnerable to rollback by failing to achieve upper and middle class ‘buy in’; and it bakes the oversight and disciplining apparatus of the administrative state into policy implementation.

Second – the argument that a policy which is not targeted at the poorest is intrinsically bad because of its regressive redistributive outcomes. I can’t do better on this argument than the excellent Policy Sketchbook blog, which addresses this category of argument in some detail in this post (as well as in earlier ones). Tl;dr: policies come in bundles, and it doesn’t make sense to call a policy ‘regressive’ unless you know what else is changing in the overall policy package to achieve it. A universalist policy (or indeed a middle-class-targeted policy) funded by highly progressive taxation is not regressive in any useful sense.

Third – the argument that given its budgetary constraints, Labour’s spending priorities are poor – that the money Labour plans to spend on university tuition fees abolition (to take the highest-expense new budget item as the example), would be better spent on other policy goals (for example, fully reversing Conservative and Coalition welfare cuts, or the NHS, or both.)

I think this last argument has a great deal of merit. Labour has imposed quite significant fiscal constraints on itself – McDonnell’s fiscal rule prohibits borrowing for day-to-day spending which is not balanced out by increases in taxation, and Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposed quite modest (in the grand scheme of things) tax increases, while actively ruling out a range of other possible tax increases. Moreover, any Labour government will almost certainly be inheriting a state with welfare spending significantly impacted by years of austerity budgets, an underfunded NHS, etc. etc. In this context, Labour’s spending priorities, in its 2017 manifesto, do seem strange. Labour’s university fees abolition policy is not – contra the centrists – regressive in any meaningful sense. However, the opportunity cost of this policy is extremely high, absent a budget with much larger overall spending increases than those currently proposed.

This problem could of course be fixed by increasing overall tax and spend. At present, however, Labour’s commitments are what they are. Unless and until those commitments change, I think the left should be quite seriously concerned about the policy implications of Labour’s platform.

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One Response to “Is the Labour manifesto ‘regressive’, and how?”


  1. […] level under New Labour in 2010”. I don’t know if that report is accurate, but – as I’ve written before – McDonnell’s fiscal constraint commitments are, from my perspective, an extremely […]


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