Confident after years of poll leads, the Conservatives have called a shock general election for June 8th. As the party in power the decision to do so was entirely theirs, and it is likely they have been preparing policies for months. So why is their work and welfare offering so timid?
While unemployment has been falling for years, and now stands at 4.6% in the UK, there are real problems with the quality and distribution of work. The growth of zero hour contracts, and particularly the huge rise to nearly five million self-employed people who can earn less than minimum wage, has seen average earnings fall in real terms over many years. While unemployment rate differences between regions have narrowed, earnings differentials are huge, with those working in the City of London earning on average nearly three times those who work in Rossendale in the north west (£958 v £391).
The two main parties both acknowledge this issue, and both see regional development as being key to closing the gap. Labour will implement a £250 billion National Transformation Fund and regional development banks along with an industrial strategy to spread prosperity more widely. The Conservatives' own industrial strategy is not underpinned by such investment, focusing on R&D, innovation, and a National Investment Fund of less than a tenth of the value of Labour's version that in practice includes funding already committed by previous governments. The scale is only part of it; the Tory focus is more on businesses than employees, and employment growth and quality take second place.
The Conservatives nod to regional policy, but their emphasis on a low-tax environment suggests they will fail for the same reasons already seen with their Northern Powerhouse; a lack of investment means it looks like a cover for devolving central government cuts rather than a real attempt to empower regions to create jobs and prosperity.
Both parties recognise the problem of huge inequality between top and bottom earners within UK companies; while Labour will deny those firms public contracts, the Tories will rely on shareholder votes to limit pay at the top. In practice these votes almost never go against recommended awards so this policy won't incentivise directors to improve the lot of their low-paid workers.
Both claim to focus on workers' rights, a vital issue now Britain won't have to meet EU standards, but only one has a recent history of opposing and eroding here. In the last seven Tory-dominated years we have seen policies including high fees for workers to use employment tribunals, locking many out of the process, an increase in the qualifying period to be able to sue for unfair dismissal, a cap on tribunal payouts of one year's salary, cutting the consultation period for employers making redundancies, and increasing the turnout threshold for being allowed to strike. These measures were all supported by Theresa May, so her apparent conversion to a (rather blurred) vision of rights for all must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Those proposed new rights include an increase in the 'National Living Wage', an appalling theft of language. The real living wage is a process, not simply a figure, and the lack of connection to the cost of living in the future means the Tory version will not give the low paid what they need. By contrast the Labour manifesto commits to ending zero hour contracts, collective wage bargaining enhancements, protections against imported labour undercutting UK labour on pay, new public holidays, abolishing employment tribunal fees, banning unpaid internships, using public sector spending to drive up standards, abolishing self-employment dodges, and providing a commitment to the real living wage, not the fake Tory version.
The idea of protecting people who work in the 'gig' economy is particularly valuable given the rise in insecure freelancing, but again the Conservatives nod to it without committing to anything. Consultation rather than action is the watchword for this prospectus.
The Tory war on welfare claimants may be on hiatus - no further 'radical reform' is planned - but the erosions of payments and conditions already announced will still stand. Labour, on the other hand, has committed to a respect-based system, rolling back some of the worst abuses including scrapping sanctions, the 'rape clause', PIP and Work Capability Assessments (WCA), the Bedroom Tax and bereavement payment cuts and reinstating housing benefit for young people.
They will increase the Carer's Allowance to the same level as Jobseeker's Allowance and reverse the £30-per-week ESA work group cut. In the context of accusations of this being a prospectus of the revolutionists the decision to implement a new supportive disabled people's work assessment rather than scrapping it altogether is brave, but also right. Disabled people should neither be abandoned nor forced off benefits into suitable work.
The missing commitment is the restoration of benefit levels to 2010 levels in real terms, ensuring their value is restored after the Conservatives ended inflation-linked annual rises, and this is vital if poverty is to be alleviated among the poorest.
A Labour 'National Education Service' promising free cradle-to-grave learning would help address a fundamental issue among workless people, namely how to upskill to develop a sustainable career. In contrast the Conservatives are withdrawing training support from the unemployed through moving from the Work Programme to Work and Health Programme with its much narrower focus.
The difference in the manifestos shows why incumbent governments with big poll leads need more challenge. The Tories aren't rocking the boat and include little in the way of real policy and commitments, but as a result promise almost nothing that addresses the fundamental problems that still exist in the UK.
The Conservative manifesto provides broad-brush sketches of some ideas, but only the Labour manifesto shows the power of government to make much-needed change in work and benefits.