Caveat emptor: Cameron’s moon on a stick manifesto

The most eye-catching promise from the Conservative manifesto was not the extension of right to buy to housing associations – that had been widely trailed and, to paraphrase Nick Clegg, was like a bad cover of a bad song. The political equivalent of Cameron covering Agadoo, if you will.

For me the most eye-catching commitment was to 30 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds. This was a stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks, stare-at-the-radio, ‘Did I hear that right?’ moment. Could the Conservatives really be outmanoeuvring Labour on this?

High-quality, affordable childcare is for me the cornerstone of a just economy. It is essential in tackling the structural sexism that women still face every day. And, when combined with a strong emphasis on child development, it is also essential in ensuring our poorest children are able to succeed.

I have argued before that it needs to be treated by policymakers as essential infrastructure. Childcare is as key to our economic success as transport, broadband and housing. But it is not given the same weight.

So in my time as leader of Camden council I have prioritised the issue, ensuring that under my leadership Camden does everything it can to help parents meet the extremely high costs of childcare while also leading on changes to working patterns that enable carers to have careers. We already offer 25 hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds – something that will be available across the country if Labour wins. Under Labour Camden also become the country’s first Timewise council – prioritising good quality, flexible and part-time career opportunities.

I couldn’t believe the Conservatives would be able to outdo us on this. So I did some digging, and it turns out, they cannot.

The Conservatives cost their policy at a mere £350m. A doubling of the current free childcare for around one-third of a billion. Sounds too good to be true. Well, it turns out it is. But you don’t have to take my word for it. As recently as December a Conservative minister in the Department for Education was saying so too. He was attacking his Labour shadow, Alison McGovern, and claiming our policy was unfunded and unaffordable.

The Conservatives can apparently double free childcare to 30 hours per for £350m, but in December they (over) estimated Labour’s commitment, for 25 hours per week, would cost £1.5bn. Labour’s commitment, costed by our wonks at £800m, is funded by the increased banking levy.To deliver these hours for £350m the quality of the childcare will need to be so appalling that no right-minded parent would ever subject their child to it.

I would love to believe that there was a new universal political consensus on childcare. I have personally spent a lot of political energy arguing for it and trying to deliver it. Too many people, in Camden and across the country, are locked out of work and training completely because childcare is unaffordable. It is holding back our economy and our efforts to tackle child poverty.

But this is not serious policy from the Conservatives. It is uncosted pandering for the centre-ground. And, like the rest of their uncosted manifesto, it’s the moon on a stick.

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Sarah Hayward is leader of the London borough of Camden. She tweets @Sarah_Hayward

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