Who should designers vote for in the UK general election 2019?

We’ve looked at the election manifestos of each party and spoken to industry experts to help you navigate the upcoming election.

On 12 December Britain will go to the polls for the second time since June 2017 in an election which is largely underscored by three themes – populism, Brexit and the climate crisis – but how are designers and design businesses likely to be affected by the proposed policies of the main parties?


It’s the root cause of this election and a colossal burden for everyone on the political spectrum. It’s dominated the agenda and at its heart is the matter of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. We’ve spent years trying to understand what it might mean for the design industry at any given point.

Back in February 2016, before the referendum 70% of Design Week readers wanted to remain in the EU.

Today, many of the same concerns prevail. Particularly for design businesses importing materials or for those exporting their own products which want to know about trade agreements. Others are concerned with the employment status of European nationals living in the UK, while intellectual property rights in relation to EU law is another key focus.

Intellectual Property

Anti Copying In Design (ACID) CEO Dids Macdonald OBE says: “One of the critical areas which no party has addressed is the potentially calamitous situation, deal or no deal, when the UK leaves the EU which the majority of UK designers will find themselves in. They will lose their automatic unregistered design protection in an EU27 set-up.” (EU27 refers to the number of EU member states after the UK leaves.)

It is significant that the manifestos fail to address this as the majority of UK designers rely on unregistered design rights to give them three years of automatic protection, which is currently the case in the EU28 arrangement, including the UK.

Given the value that IP rich business bring to the economy it is surprising that there is no real focus on it in any of the manifestos.

“The Conservatives Manifesto has no direct mention of IP although there are a number of IP associated issues and policies referenced; while Labour does better with a positive commitment to fair remuneration to artists and content creators. The Liberal Democrats raises the profile of IP indirectly through their ‘Innovation-led Economy’ section,” says Macdonald.

The Liberal Democrats, Macdonald says, has always been “proactive supporters of the creative industries and recognised the importance of IP. Indeed the party supported the ACID campaign for registered design to have criminal provisions, which was enshrined in the 2014 IP Act when the Liberal Democrats were in power.

Freedom of movement

Designers seeking explicit answers will probably not find them in the manifestos but there are clear indications of intent. The Conservative Party is certain about ending freedom of movement in the event of a Brexit deal. You may have noticed the recurring promise of the introduction of an “Australian-style points based system”, although it is uncertain exactly how that would work.

Think tank Policy Connect’s design and innovation policy manager Jack Tindale says: “It is inevitable that an end to freedom of movement with the European Union will limit the opportunities available to creatives and designers wishing to engage with colleagues and businesses in the EU proper.

There is no mention of the £30,000 income threshold for new EU arrivals in the Conservative manifesto. This was a highly controversial cap mooted by the party in the past. To not have it would be a tacit benefit to the sector and employers, according to Tindale.

Meanwhile Caroline Julian, director of policy and programmes says: “The Creative Industries Federation finds the Labour manifesto ‘lacks detail’ in the shape of the UK’s future immigration system.

Global creative talent remains crucial to the growth, success and diversity of the UK’s creative industries, and we will be calling on the new government to introduce urgent reforms in line with our campaigning on this issue to date.”

We now know that Labour will hold a referendum on any renegotiated deal, which stands to include participation in the Single Market and Customs Union. This would lead to less disruption for businesses engaging with the EU. The Liberal Democrats is pledging to scrap Brexit entirely.

“Both parties have also committed to freedom of movement being retained regardless of the outcome to any second referendum. This would also allow for continuity with regulations such as mutual recognition of intellectual property rights,” says Tindale.

The Tory manifesto does make some provision for freelancers, which Julian says she is encouraged by: “More than one third of people working in the creative industries are freelancers, and so we welcome the proposal to launch a review to assess how government can better support the self-employed.”

However she caveats this with a prescient warning: “It is critical that international freelancers – a crucial part of our sector’s world-leading workforce – are at the heart of any reforms to the UK’s future immigration system.”

Climate and environment

The climate crisis is on the agenda in a bigger way than ever before. In the light of prescient scientific reports based on what is already happening and a groundswell of public dissatisfaction, particularly among young people, the environment is no longer a marginal issue.

Designers have been part of this conversation for a long time and are increasingly engaged with social design projects which have an environmental objective while many more designers and their clients are integrating sustainability into their design thinking.

At this election all the political parties are being forced to engage with what is now a very mainstream issue as the Design Council’s director of policy, research and communications and Dr Ambreen Shah observes.

“The importance of product design in growing sustainability and cutting waste is recognised in the Liberal Democrat and Labour documents, and there is prominence for adaptable and environmental housing design from the Conservatives and Greens,” she says. 

Business and design

Proposed spending has been a focus of attention in the last couple of weeks and it’s one of the ways the Conservatives and Labour have polarised themselves. For every £1 in extra spending pledged by the Tories, the opposition is proposing £28.

Alongside its “Get Brexit Done” Mantra, the Conservative Party is adopting a series of tax policies, which Policy Connect’s Tindale says are “straight out of the David Cameron era”, particularly around cutting business rates, research and development (R&D) tax, Construction Industry Scheme tax and employers’ National Insurance contributions.

With the design sector dominated by smaller firms and SMEs, this may help to limit the impact of a hard Brexit.

“In contrast, Labour’s spending policies are to be part funded by increasing Corporation Tax from 19% to 26%. However, this would only return us to the tax levels seen at the start of the decade. The Liberal Democrats have proposed a rate of 20%,” says Tindale.

All parties have pledged to increase investment in local infrastructure. Labour’s commitment to free nationwide broadband by 2030 is perhaps the grandest and most ambitious statement in this area.

The Liberal Democrats has called for specific tax support for the video games sector as well as support to modernise copyright and licensing rules to assist SMEs operating in the design sector.

Meanwhile the Conservative Party claims to focus on increasing support for skills and in-work training, while making provision for a new £3bn National Skills Fund.

Labour would increase spending in R&D

R&D references appear in all of three main party’s manifestos. Specifically Labour pledges to increase spending in this area by 2.4% by 2027 and 3% by 2030 while the Liberal Democrat party offers a 2.4% increase by 2027 and 3% longer term.

The Conservative Party has not offered anything new to its position on R&D, rather sticking to its existing target of a 2.4% spending increase, although it does indicate R&D tax credits will be increased to 13%. It also pledges to reform Entrepreneurs’ Relief, although it does not say how it will do this.

Policy Connect’s Tindale says: “While far from front-and-centre of the political sphere, it is nevertheless positive that all three major nationwide parties are starting to recognise the value and importance of design across the wider economy.

“However, the sector must continue to speak with one voice to make the case for design as a vehicle for innovation and meeting the challenges and opportunities of the new decade and the possibility of a post-Brexit Britain.”

Conservatives address “important measures to support small businesses”

Meanwhile the Creative Industry Federation takes a broad view of the manifestos as you would expect and says it is right that Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos explicitly recognise the UK creative industries, which it values as contributing more than £100bn gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy annually. This is the measure of the value of goods and services.

Caroline Julian, director of policy and programmes says that 95% of organisations in the creative industries are micro-businesses – meaning nine employees or fewer.

She singles out the Conservatives manifesto for featuring “a number of important measures to support small businesses” including investment in skills and training.

“In addition to this, greater focus is needed to address the distinctive barriers faced by many creative businesses trying to access finance and seek the tailored support that they need to succeed,” she says.

“Design” in the manifestos

Although we expected to see business policy across the manifestos it was a surprise to see “design” mentioned rather than the catch-all “creative industries”.

The Conservative Party has managed to do this. In relation to investment it highlights “design” as an “industry of the future” – meaning that it appears alongside life sciences, clean energy, space, computing, robotics and AI as part of a small list.

It also gets a name check in a section which states: “The UK is at its best when it allies its extraordinary design and artistic abilities with science and technology”.

The Design Council’s Shah says the Conservatives “identify design specifically as an area which will set Britain’s economy apart in the future,” and adds, “We’d be keen to see how they will grow the design sectors’ diverse people and businesses.” Indeed there’s not really any explicit reference to how they would do it in the manifesto.

Looking to Labour and Liberal Democrats Shah says she is pleased to read about an emphasis on co-creation. “Labour talks about ensuring ‘the voices of local people… are heard in future developments of the health system’ as they seek to join up the NHS and social care, and the LibDems describe ‘people designing services for their own individual needs’. The Greens also focus on greater public involvement including the wider use of participatory democracy models.”

Designers will be interested to see this kind of language being used in a manifesto knowing that these are the building blocks of co-design and service design. It’s particularly interesting to see user-focussed design highlighted as it’s a key component of most design projects.

We have known for some time that the design industry is growing in terms of value and demand – and there is plenty of evidence to support this. The Design Council points to its own research which shows that the UK design economy generated £85.2bn in gross value added (GVA) in 2016, up from £56bn in 2009. Meanwhile the need for design skills increased at twice the rate of UK employment between 2012 and 2017.

Shah says that she sees “glimpses of promise and potential” in terms of how design is being addressed across the manifestos. With the advent of the fourth industrial revolution on the horizon, this trend is set to continue, she says: “It’s no surprise, therefore, that across many policy areas, design is creeping further into the political consciousness.”


While the Tories may have name-checked design, they have a history of neglecting it in schools and universities. The Science Technology English and Maths (STEM) agenda which omits arts from mainstream school education was indicative of this, as was the introduction of the controversial EBacc, which has been seen to “devalue and sideline” creative education.

On Design Week we have often reported the gap between the growing design sector and the failure to support it through design education, which is likely to create a skills shortage and effect the economy.

Labour has given backing to the arts in education. It has a separate Arts Manifesto, but in the Manifesto proper it promises to introduce an “Arts Pupil Premium to every primary school in England”. This is worth £160 million and would “ensure creative and arts education
is embedded in secondary education, and provide a pathway to grow our thriving creative sector,” Labour says.

“LibDems focus on creative and reasoning skills”

The Design Council’s Shah says: “The Green Party has given attention to the need for a broader curriculum with a wider choice of academic and vocational study, crucial to current and future workforce skills as automation spreads across the economy.

“The Liberal Democrat party has focused on creative and reasoning skills and their ‘skills wallet’ proposal is interesting. Labour’s National Education Service promises welcome involvement for employers in co-design of qualifications.”

Meanwhile the Creative Industry’s Federation’s Julian says it broadly welcomes commitments from both parties ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to experience arts and culture and undertake creative subjects.

She also says, “Despite their proposals for an Arts Pupil Premium in primary schools, Labour falls short of committing to put creative subjects at the heart of the secondary curriculum.”

While the manifestos do give us some insight they are by their nature quite reductive and indicative of the populist politics of this election, which seems to be coloured by a succinct shorthand that it is difficult to see beyond.

Discover more:

UK general election 2019: which parties are using design most effectively?

General Election 2019: Labour has designers’ vote

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  • scar58 December 10, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    Not Labour or Lib Dementeds !!!

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