Manifesto matters

Was Labour’s 2017 manifesto really the progressive platform the left has been waiting for?

YES – Matt Zarb-Cousin

In the last election, Labour not only broke with conventional wisdom in terms of how it campaigned, but its policy platform also departed from the long-held consensus view that in order to win an election, the offer had to be amelioration of the system rather than transformation.

Labour did not surpass all expectations in spite of offering something transformational, but precisely because its offer was transformational. In 1997, when the economic consensus was, for most people, delivering housing, rising wages, investment and economic growth, the perception that electability hinged on ameliorating rather than transforming the economy was a logical conclusion to draw. However, since the financial crisis of 2008, our economy and wages have stagnated, there is a housing crisis, a scarcity of high-skilled jobs, household debt is out of control, and our public services are at breaking point.

The context has changed: Jeremy Corbyn, and those that elected him leader, recognise this. For this reason, Corbyn’s supporters are now the true modernisers in the Labour party. They understand that, since the financial crisis and seven years of austerity, when the status quo is not delivering for the vast majority of people political parties must impart a transformational offer to the electorate.

When the manifesto leaked, what started as an almost voyeuristic intrigue into its contents quickly shifted the election battleground away from Brexit and onto domestic policy. Election campaigns are usually filled with ‘politician’s statements’; statements that it would be impossible to disagree with, such as ‘I want everyone to fulfil their potential’. But if you say ‘I am going to raise money from here to pay for this thing’ then it is possible to disagree with that, as you could choose not to. You therefore create an antagonism, and define the frame within which your opponents have to operate.

It is possible to cost each specific policy with a revenue source. The funding for schools, the arts and free school meals is roughly equivalent to the revenue that would be raised by VAT on private school fees, the excessive pay levy and the offshore property levy.

Restoring further education tuition and Educational Maintenance Allowance would be paid for by a soft drinks levy, a higher tax on private medical insurance and on controlled foreign companies.

The increase in childcare and early years funding, including Sure Start, would be paid for by a ‘Robin Hood tax’ extending stamp duty to derivatives. Scrapping tuition fees, funding maintenance grants, nurses’ bursaries, the National Health Service and social care would be paid for by restoring corporation tax to the level it was in 2011.

Increasing social security funding including housing benefit for under-21s would be paid for by reversing capital gains tax and inheritance tax cuts. Lifting the public sector pay cap would be paid for by reviewing corporation tax reliefs.

Uprating pensions, 10,000 more police, doubling paternity pay and leave, more border guards and firefighters would be paid for by increasing income tax on the top five per cent

This enabled Labour to say there would be no tax increases on 95 per cent of earners, something the Conservatives could not. They might have once claimed ‘we’re all in this together’ but Labour’s manifesto showed what that actually looks like.

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Matt Zarb-Cousin is former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn. He tweets at @mattzarb

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NO – Adrian McMenamin

Almost as soon as Labour’s manifesto was published, a number of commentators remarked on how conservative it was.

Piled to the top with populist promises and nods to every vaguely fashionable cause on the left, it promised oodles of additional spending but hardly lived up to the proud boast of 1974 that Labour would oversee ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families.’

Plainly, there is nothing very leftwing about planning a multi-billion bailout of the middle class through the abolition of tuition fees. Nor was the Labour leadership’s key success of the campaign – forcing Theresa May into an excruciatingly embarrassing U-turn on protecting the property inheritances of the wealthy menaced by the so-called ‘dementia tax’ – exactly an act of class warfare.

The proposed significant extension of public ownership – to mail, rail and water – might look like a more traditionally leftist programme, though the justifications offered for each hardly indicate they were stepping stones towards the socialist commonwealth, as opposed to sops to the unions that shouted loudest and policies with nostalgic appeal.

Now the socialists approach their seventies do they long for a return to the socialist 1970s? I am not buying it.

The author of Labour’s economic and spending plans was John McDonnell and the shadow chancellor is many of the things Jeremy Corbyn is not: academic, hard-working, fastidiously ideological, dedicated. In short, he is both the brains and the workhorse of the Corbyn project and he did not spend the last 40 years on manoeuvres just to offer bungs to the middle class and create a few Morrisonian corporations.

McDonnell’s ideological training is as a Trotskyist and it is to Leon Trotsky’s ‘Transitional Programme’ of 1940 that we should look to as we seek to explain what is happening. By that point, the former commander of the Red Army had given up on the world’s communist parties as harbingers of revolution. Instead he urged his followers, whether as ‘entryists’ to other leftwing parties or operating openly, to adopt new tactics – those of the transitional demand.

A transitional demand is one that looks like a traditional call from the left but which is purposively designed to be undeliverable without revolutionary change. The idea is that people back the policy and when they see that it is undeliverable within today’s society opt to back a further radicalisation.

And that may be what lies at the heart of Labour’s economic programme. That the manifesto represented something other than a rigorously explored prospectus for change was not difficult to spot.

In this scenario, it does not matter that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that, at a minimum, Labour’s proposed taxes on the rich would fall £11bn short.

Nor was this attitude confined to spending. The reason the frontbench issue vacuous statements about how they want a Brexit that will leave nobody worse off is precisely because they know that cannot happen. Instead they want to capture the anger they expect the forthcoming fiasco to generate to make much more radical ideas popular.

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Adrian McMenamin is the former chief press and broadcasting officer for the Labour party. He tweets at @adrianmcmenamin

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Comments: 1...

  1. On August 29, 2017 at 8:45 pm David Boothroyd responded with... #

    I think we should be absolutely honest with each other about the 2017 manifesto. Parts of the manifesto were excellent. Like the curate’s egg.

    But Labour was very fortunate that because the chance of a Labour victory had been discounted at the beginning, the manifesto never got proper scrutiny; had it have done, it would have been very difficult to defend. The costings were in places arbitrary, in others plainly inaccurate, and some purely illusory (the IFS analysis is compelling). We got away with it during the campaign only because the Tories didn’t even try to cost their manifesto.

    Loading of tax increases onto Corporation Tax would almost certainly not work, and would specifically not work if the UK was to leave the European single market.

    More serious was the supposed ‘National Transformation Fund’ investment programme which if taken seriously would be an amazingly bad deal. Anyone can come up with projects on which £250bn could be spent, but coming up with such projects that would actually have a return greater than their capital cost is much more difficult. (They would almost all be in London and the South East, for instance – so the choice would be an economy even more concentrated there and leaving the rest of the country behind, or massive additional borrowing with no way to pay it back.)

    That this programme was not properly thought through was shown when John McDonnell justified it by coming up with a supposed distinction between borrowing and bonds. The fact is that issuing bonds is how governments borrow money.

    The key to election victory for a left-wing party is to persuade the country that not only will resources be distributed in a fairer, more equal way, the overall level of resources will be higher. We failed on this task in 2015 and barely even attempted it in 2017 – but got away with it because the manifesto never got full scrutiny.

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