Election 2019: Labour’s manifesto is mere wishful thinking - Philip Collins
The opposition has ideas a sensible government might take up but they’re outnumbered by absurd promises of freebies
The Labour Party is much better understood through its defeats than through its victories, and not just because there are more of them. For a party that was founded to be the parliamentary wing of organised labour it has been signally unsuccessful. Of the 119 years that have elapsed since Labour issued its first manifesto, it has spent only 33 of them in office and 13 of those were won by the unperson Blair. There have been 31 elections and Labour has won a working majority just five times. Yesterday, with the publication of the Labour manifesto, we saw why.
The problem with It’s Time for Real Change is that the party doesn’t believe in its own title. It would be real change, but it’s not time. The Labour manifestos in 1964 and 1997, the prelude to victories, made modest promises precisely because the party leader expected them to have to be redeemed.
They have all described the NHS as being in crisis. Every manifesto since the 1950s has done so. They have all demanded vast investment in the public realm and reform of the House of Lords. The winning Labour manifestos had longer sections on defence and the importance of Nato. The losing ones not so much, apart from 1983 which led on nuclear disarmament.
There is not much about defence in Labour’s 2019 manifesto but there is everything about everything else. It is hard to avoid the thought that a document so packed with freebies as this one is not the programme of a party that expects to carry it out. Broadband, care for the elderly, tuition fees, childcare will all be provided free of charge. Benefits will go up across the board, including the winter fuel payment, free TV licences and free bus passes for pensioners. The living wage will be £10 an hour, maternity pay and childcare provision will be extended, schools and hospitals will be rebuilt and all public servants will be paid in suitcases of gold bullion.
In the words of the coda to Let Us Face The Future, the Labour manifesto of 1945, “These are the aims. In themselves they are no more than words. All parties may declare that in principle they agree with them. But the test of a political programme is whether it is sufficiently in earnest about the objectives to adopt the means needed to realise them.” The obvious objection to this impressive consolidation of all good things has been given by Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is “simply not credible”, he said, that the £82.9 billion price tag can be met with a few extra taxes on corporate Britain and wealthy individuals.
Apart from its air of unreality, there is plenty of substance in the Labour manifesto to which the veteran of victorious Labour might well object. Problems in the supply of energy and water will be exacerbated rather than fixed by a costly nationalisation. I am always puzzled by why Labour wants the government (which is usually Tory) to run the trains. “Put Chris Grayling in charge,” said nobody, ever. The ideological assumption that all private sector activity in health and education is wrong has no basis in evidence. A state drug company is a rotten idea. Abolishing the successful academy schools programme would be foolish and so is scrapping the testing regime. In public services Labour has nothing at all to say beyond the desire to spend more.
Yet the more searching critique of the Labour manifesto is not that it contains plenty I do not like, but that it also contains a great deal that I do. The successful Labour manifestos (1945, 1964 and 1997) were all stories of modernisation. All three leant heavily on science and technology, which would provide the ingenuity to solve tomorrow the problems that worried the nation today. The 1964 manifesto referred to the state-of-the-art hovercraft and the Atlas computer.
The closest that It’s Time for Real Change gets to this is in its opening section on climate change. There is still, for my taste, far too much faith in infrastructure committees and state funding agencies, but this is the boldest and greenest set of proposals ever found in a British party manifesto. To cite just the one good idea, the Clean Air Act is a necessity. Thirty years from now I suspect that some of this first chapter will be standard public policy.
The manifesto also contains a very long list of new rights for workers. These will be summarily, and wrongly, dismissed as socialism run riot but while employment in Britain has remained high, this country has a serious problem with the quality of the jobs created. Work for too many people is unrewarding, measured both in satisfaction and in money. There is a case to be made for employee ownership, for a universal basic income and for the panoply of smaller but important rights proposed, such as proper notice for changes in hours, statutory bereavement leave and four bank holidays on the patron saints’ days.
It is, we should recall, the job of the party called Labour to protect the position of employees. It is a witless criticism to disparage them for seeking to do so. There has never been a Labour manifesto, including the landlside-winning one of 1997, that did not do the same.
Likewise, better housing, which first became a Labour priority in the 1923 manifesto, runs through 1945, 1964 and 1997 and finds its echo in 2019. A massive building programme, a revival of social housing, the power to purchase land more easily and the proper taxation of land are all welcome.
It is important to recognise, too, that private renting is going to grow as long as the market for ownership is locking out all but the really well off. Even if Labour has not yet found the right balance between landlord and tenant, its question is at least the right one, which cannot be said so far of the Tories.
There is more too, in a seemingly endless parade. The stress placed on increasing the terribly low conviction rate for rape is serious and welcome. More buses, much scepticism about arms sales, the cricket World Cup on the BBC, alternatives to custodial sentences and the hand of the leader himself in the sentence “we will establish a National Food Commission and review the Allotments Act”.
If I were running a radical think tank, with no responsibility for implementing a word of this, I might marvel at my handiwork. I might hope that, in due course, a serious government would carry some of it out. Maybe one will, if we ever have an election where a serious government is on offer.
The Labour manifesto of 1997 declared that “we will be a radical government. But the definition of radicalism will not be that of doctrine, whether of left or right, but of achievement.” It is not a sentence that Labour manifestos often contain, and with good reason.