By Sam Stopp and Mark Jackson
Perhaps the most worrying reaction of all to today’s Labour manifesto launch comes not from the voters or Labour’s enemies in the press, for the realists among us knew how they would react. Instead, it comes from the parts of the Party that labour under this dangerous illusion: “Right message, wrong messenger.”
The same mantra was trotted out when, in 2015, Ed Miliband led Labour to a worse defeat than the one it had endured at the previous election (when it had been in government for 13 years). “But the policies were popular”, declared many of those who went on to vote for Corbyn and, indeed, one or two other candidates. There’s no convincing evidence that the ban on zero hours contracts (a headline pledge at the time) had much popularity.
Moreover, the popularity of any individual policies was undermined by the electorate’s conclusion that Labour couldn’t actually pay for any of this stuff. Of course, the only evidence that really matters is the election result, the last of which was the product of many failures, including the previous leadership’s inability to set out any kind of convincing narrative about the future of Britain or how it could take us there.
Here we are, two years on, and far too many on the centre-left seem eager to continue to delude themselves that transactional, retail policies which are thrown at the electorate like pieces of raw red meat will somehow convince them to bite. Why would they, when the gruel on offer from the Tories has at least been cooked thoroughly?
It’s too late now, obviously, but for what it’s worth, let’s look at some of the most ill-thought-out parts of the manifesto. Perhaps when the election result comes in, some of this will serve as an instruction about the way forward. Take the rise in Corporation Tax, for instance. Brexit is going to create an economic environment where, pretty much however it goes, it will be more expensive / difficult to do business in this country than it has been for generations. So why, oh why, would we want to make the UK’s economic environment even harsher on business and the nation that depends on it? And by the way, a 67% marginal tax rate for anyone is basically theft.
Look, then, at another of Labour’s sacred cows – free education. Our policy to scrap tuition fees – a mechanism we ourselves brought in – shouldn’t be a priority at all and is, frankly, a money-wasting sop to liberal academe. There is basically no evidence that tuition fees – or even tuition fees rises – have prevented students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds getting to university (in fact, the numbers attending have continued to rise). What the evidence actually shows is that it’s not tuition fees that put students from such backgrounds off going to university, but maintenance, rent and the cost of living. How about serious policies to tackle those underlying issues?
Meanwhile, the money should be spent on early years education, reducing class sizes and improving pastoral education in primary and secondary schools. Linking education to skills, Labour should be focusing on reforming technical education, as any serious Labour manifesto in the context of Brexit should have at its heart a programme for training the next generation so that the country is less reliant on migrant labour and can avoid a jobs crisis when automation fully takes hold in the next ten to twenty years.
On health, the NHS needs more than mere expressions of love and mythical amounts of new spending. It needs a forward-looking, realistic re-appraisal from the Labour Party about how it can continue to be delivered free at the point of use. Medicine and technology are getting more expensive and Britons are living longer. Follow these facts to their logical conclusion and it becomes apparent that the health service will buckle under its own weight if we cannot find a way to reform how we pay for it sustainably.
Ultimately, manifestos make up a very small part of the electorate’s decision-making process. It’s the headlines that matter, and how they fit into an overarching narrative. The electorate will soon deliver its verdict on Labour’s vision. In our considered view, the worst thing of all about this manifesto is not even what is in the document, but what has been left out. We can only hope that there is some semblance of a Labour Party around in the wake of the election result to pick up the pieces and go back to the country with something worthy of the British people.