No new bible

Labour’s 2017 manifesto best bits will feature in Labour’s next winning manifesto, but suggesting changes cannot be seen as heretical, writes Richard Angell

Never before have the manifestos of both major parties been – both simultaneously and so obviously – written for audiences other than the public. The Conservative party’s programme was written for the House of Lords so the revising chamber could not block its ‘tough’ reforms. Labour’s was for the post-2015 members of the Labour party anticipating a huge loss and then an epic battle over the soul of the party.

It is fair to say the former repelled older voters, in particular, from Theresa May and her ‘team’ of local candidates, depressing turnout with a key plank of the Tory base – pensioners. The latter, however, enthused young voters to both register and vote for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour candidates across the country.

Labour’s manifesto had vision – which most agree its two, if not three, predecessors lacked; it had policies easy to explain; and, with clear appeal to very different parts of the electorate and – despite its contradictions – very much felt like it added up to more than the sum of its parts. There was much in it that I, and every progressive in Britain, would like to see achieved under a future Labour government. On national security it reflected agreed conference policy and it avoided the issue of foreign policy almost entirely.

This manifesto will be the blueprint for a future winning Labour manifesto, in the same way, as Stephen Bush at the New Statesman has pointed out, much of the contents of the 1983 manifesto were reiterated in the 1997 successor and then implemented by Tony Blair’s government. I look forward to this happening; I just hope there are not 14 years in the intervening period.

The manifesto, however, is not perfect. It risks being talked about as sacred text, a new age bible of the left. This would be wrong. First, it was not the most leftwing manifesto on offer – the distributional impact of measures when taken together would give more to the middle classes and less to the poor. Other than soaking the super rich, it bares a striking resemblance to the Tory distributional impact for 90 per cent of the public. It was the Liberal Democrats who offered real change for the bottom income groups.

Second, it did not contain the radical reform that Britain’s economy so desperately needs. There was higher spending and renationalisations but little that would change the short-term, casino capitalism that Ed Miliband had within his sights, nor any measures to address the asset-less in society who are really falling behind. In a text exchange with a close friend of mine who regularly calls people with my politics a ‘red Tory’, I asked for a definition. They replied: ‘Someone who thinks all the spending on schools, hospitals and tax credits compensates for leaving behind a neoliberal economy and an unreformed banking system.’ Had this manifesto been authored by any other wing of the party, John McDonnell and his friend would be saying the same about Labour’s 2017 offer. So much for the challenge to neoliberalism many were promised.

Third, while the manifesto had costings attached to individual items it was not costed as a document. Had the Tories not run an argument-free campaign and avoided the economy as a key dividing line the spurious revenue identified and the considerable spending associated would have been scrutinised – and most likely found wanting.

So what does Labour do with a good, but not perfect, manifesto?

First, it should accept the Institute for Fiscal Studies worst-case scenarios for how much the tax measures would bring in. This would close down a massive line of attack. It should then cut its cloth accordingly: the difference between Labour tax and spending £50bn and £38bn is not the difference between whether it is anti-austerity or austerity-lite. The language of priorities is the religion of socialism, after all.

Second, McDonnell should promise that any revenue raised over the IFS’s projections will be spent on deficit reduction. This would confound his critics and show that Labour will attempt what the Tories will never do: fund public services and pay down the deficit.

Third, reprioritise some of the £11bn allocated for free tuition fees for the middle classes and filthy rich to reverse the Tories’ benefits cap and to provide grants for those not going to university. In 2015, Jim Murphy offered a £1,600 ‘future fund’ grant to all Scottish 18 and 19 year olds not in higher education.

Finally, retain the renationalisation of Royal Mail and the railways (not that I agree with the latter, but to certain voters it seems to be a solution to their dire transport problems) and promote alternative energy providers (something I enthusiastically support), but drop the pointless renationalisation of water companies that seems to have no measurable benefit, no recognisable support in the country and could be hung around our necks by the Tories in a decent campaign.

An election could come at any time. The next Labour manifesto must be battle-ready, it must not contain hostages to fortune – no one wants to win like François Hollande and destroy your party because the programme is so undeliverable – and be written for the voting public. The only thing we can be sure about in politics is the next Tory manifesto definitely will be.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell 

Photo: Tom Page

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