Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A manifesto for the poorest?

Why did Labour’s offer not do more for the people at the bottom, asks Polly Billington

There is a developing consensus that the manifesto is what shifted the voters in Labour’s favour during the election campaign.

If it did inspire many to vote Labour, those who are electorally hard-headed should consider what worked and what should be kept in order to build the election-winning coalition we did not manage this time. This is an important task for those who believe the Labour party in opposition should always be working towards government.

But there is another way to look at the manifesto: what impact – if we had won – it would have had. The Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. A manifesto cannot just be a list of mini-bungs to different sections of the electorate to win votes.

In the Labour party we believe in greater economic security for all, lifting people out of poverty and ensuring the very most vulnerable can make ends meet. A manifesto reveals a political party’s priorities for government. Do the commitments made in the manifesto reveal a platform for social justice?

Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies throws some doubt on that description. It indicates we would have hiked taxes on the most wealthy. That is fine with me: the message of this is as important – if not more so – than the revenue it brings in, as it sends a strong signal in our belief in equity. Such tax levels are not unusual in sensible civilised social democracies in Europe.

However, further analysis suggested the measures would not have produced as much revenue as we claimed. Our sums are going to be under much more scrutiny next time.

The other end of the graph is more disappointing. The impact of the tax and benefit changes outlined in the Labour manifesto would only have been marginally better for the very poorest than those outlined in the Tory one. The graph does not include all the policies that would make a difference – a rise in the minimum wage, for example – but does indicate that we will need to do some serious thinking to develop policies on tax and benefits to help the very poorest more than our offer to the public in 2017. Policies in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, in contrast, radically improve things for the poorest decile of earners, and are better still for the bottom 20-40 per cent of Britons as well.

The Liberal Democrat pledges included a reversal of the welfare benefit cap. I acknowledge the manifesto writers’ courage and that of the man who signed it off, our leader Jeremy Corbyn, for their hard-headed electoral judgment not to include this. But we did not replace it with measures that would help the very poorest struggling with insecure work, high rents and rising living costs. And that is the real gap. We need a platform for social justice that builds on the way this manifesto attracted people. I am sure no one voted Labour to keep the poor still poor. Would an offer that helped people out of poverty really repel voters?

Moreover, we might find a better way of tackling the great inequalities in assets in the United Kingdom. Taxing high incomes does barely anything to the asset class that are at the crux of inequality in modern Britain – and the hardest to redistribute.

Next time we will be under more scrutiny than we were this time, so we will need a moral case to underpin our pledges, and a plan for how we will deliver on the values we share with the British public: rewarding work, supporting the most vulnerable and creating economic and social security that allows us all – including the most disadvantaged – to seize the opportunities a truly radical Labour government would be able to facilitate.


Polly Billington is the former parliamentary candidate for Thurrock and an activist in Hackney. She tweets at @PollyBillington

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Polly Billington

is prospective parliamentary candidate for Thurrock

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