The difficult second album – first look at the Labour manifesto

Many around the Labour leader credit the 2017 General Election manifesto for limiting the scale of Corbyn’s defeat at that election and their strategy for the 2019 election has placed huge stock in the ability of this manifesto to reframe the campaign. This has been matched by the bold claims the party has made for it, describing it as “the most radical, hopeful, people-focused plan in modern times”. There are undoubtedly significant policy announcements here, many of which are likely to be significant whoever wins the election, but Labour strategists will judge its success by the extent that it shifts the election debate. They have sought to achieve this by a dramatic hardening of tone. Corbyn’s rhetoric has always had a clear ‘us versus them’ dimension but his remarks today place considerably more emphasis on confronting ‘them’, going as far as to welcome the ‘hatred’ of the rich and powerful.

Labour believe that their support is fundamentally split on Brexit and on the associated issue of immigration but that a radical social and economic prospectus can reach beyond their core support. This belief will have been reinforced by the ongoing third-party squeeze on the Lib Dems, fuelling an assumption that motivated Remainers will have to settle for Labour in the absence of any other credible route to a second referendum. Their second strategic gamble is their hope that historically Labour-identifying leave voters will not be spooked by the prospect of a final say and can be attracted with ambitious pledges on jobs, investment and public services.

Brexit and immigration are two policy areas where there is significant range of views among Labour’s voter base but fairly strong (but not unanimous) consensus within the party. Internal differences within the party on independent schools and the pace of environmental ambitions were well trailed before the manifesto launch but are unlikely to be of long-term significance. Labour activists pushing for the abolition of independent education may be slightly disappointed by the more moderate approach set out here but will find much else to satisfy them. The prominence given to the ‘green industrial revolution’ alongside the ambitious targets and the inclusion of commitments on the technologies of the future including hydrogen and electric vehicles identifies this as a document that activists will find exciting and many others will want to seriously engage with.

Within the thicket of announcements and the very heavy framing of this as a transformative and radical manifesto, four key questions will define whether or not this manifesto can achieve the very high ambitions Labour has for it to move the coming weeks of campaigning onto territory they want to fight on:

  • Whilst many of these announcements are new in formal terms, they may not achieve the sense of novelty that the 2017 manifesto did. The commitments on social homebuilding are significant but every Labour manifesto for the last decade has included a significant housing programme. Likewise, scrapping Universal Credit is an important pledge but many voters will probably have believed that this is something that Labour was already committed to doing.
  • Linked to the above challenge is the question of whether, in such a policy-heavy manifesto, Labour is able to elevate one or two key policies to become the big choice of the campaign and to maintain focus on it in the way that the Conservatives are able to maintain focus on Brexit. Promising a wholesale transformation of society will appeal to many but there is a risk to Labour that it fails to be tangible.
  • The third challenge is credibility. Many Labour policies are popular when polled individually but voters doubt that they could be implemented. Research for The Times today shows that people are highly confident that Labour would keep its promises to raise taxes on the rich but do not believe that their free broadband policy is achievable.
  • The next challenge is on whether Labour can draw an effective dividing line with the Conservatives in the way that they were able to in 2017. They have clearly taken the view that the correct response to their defeat is an even more radical vision for the future. It may be that part of their better-than-expected performance in 2017 came from their status as the only party promising investment at a time of austerity. Now that the Conservatives are also making significant spending pledges it is possible that Labour lose the competitive advantage whilst retaining the stigma of economic profligacy.

Like budgets, manifestos are often best viewed from a slight difference. Labour will be happy if this manifesto is attacked as radical and appear confident that they can defend their costings. The real test for success is whether or not it becomes a key part of the election debate beyond this Sunday’s papers. The reality is that few manifestos transform election campaigns, and Labour’s faith in the ability of this document to change their fortunes may be too high.

Photo: BBC

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Dan Simpson