Opinion | Thursday, 19th December 2019

Four reasons why Labour’s manifesto fell flat

Political Economist Dr Craig Berry analyses the issues behind Jeremy Corbyn’s election policies

Labour suffered its worst election result since 1935
Labour suffered its worst election result since 1935

The UK’s Labour Party suffered its worst election result since 1935 in the latest general election, losing 59 seats in Westminster and handing the Conservative Party a majority of 80 seats in the House Of Commons.

Dr Craig Berry, Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan’s Future Economies Research Centre, identifies the problems that lay behind Labour’s manifesto.

1. Labour’s offer ignored outcomes

As inventive as it was, there was little genuinely novel in Labour’s manifesto. All of the ideas have been tried before, in this country or elsewhere, often in a more ambitious fashion.

The test for a party leader, when dipping into the policy pool, is assembling a policy programme which is coherent, clearly communicated and compelling in its account of what voters can expect to change in return for their vote.

Firstly, the vision thing: what are you saying will be fundamentally different about society as a result of your policies?

The Conservative Party had nothing but vision, and understood well that every policy beyond ‘getting Brexit done’ actually risked diluting this narrative. Labour had no equivalent, nor seemingly any awareness that one might have helped.

Secondly, the retail thing: what specific things can the electorate expect to happen in the near future?

Labour’s collection of policies lacked, for too many voters, any sense of concrete outcomes. Why did Labour not put a series of pledges at the forefront of its campaign? Boris Johnson’s pledges on hospitals and nurses were ruthlessly scrutinised by the media, which is really just another way of saying they received a great deal of attention. With a largely self-referential policy programme, the Labour leadership forgot to ask itself the questions voters might ask about any prospective government.

Labour focused, somewhat commendably, on devising policies the electorate seems to agree with. Yet it failed to ensure that the electorate actually noticed.

2. Lack of clarity on key policies

A lack of interest in outcomes meant the party neglected to even develop policies that might directly address, say, child poverty, or food bank dependence. Eliminating either, or both, could have been a key pledge – instead the party promised to abolish Universal Credit, a benefit that very few voters are currently in receipt of. The lack of any substantive offers on subsidised childcare, workplace pensions and personal debt was also hard to believe.

The two, big retail offers made by Labour which did ‘cut through’ were both significant mis-steps. The promise to compensate WASPI women may be welcome, judged on its own terms, but the way it was announced – out-of-step with Labour’s commitment to spending controls – fuelled the impression that Labour was not serious about getting into office.

The second “hold-the-press” policy announcement was the offer to nationalise and decommodify broadband. It was not unpopular at first, but its implications quickly became murkier rather than clearer in the following few days.

It was such a bold measure that, I will admit, it took a few days to remind myself that internet connectivity has pretty much always been a state-led project, under both Conservative and Labour governments, and that as such the policy was both weirdly unradical and pointlessly disruptive.

I would guess that most people did not mind being offered free broadband connection – just as physical infrastructural goods such as roads are mostly free – but few were persuaded it should be a priority, and therefore struggled to understand why Labour would present it as such.

3. The problem with the youth vote

Some Corbyn supporters point to the party’s significant lead among young people as a measure of success, fuelling an argument that the party needs simply to wait until the demographic trends catch up to its policy programme.

Labour probably does not need to worry about losing young voters to the right. However, it should be far more worried than it is about the ongoing reluctance of young people to vote at all.

Corbyn supporters may be correct to argue that ‘age is the new class’, insofar as today’s young people from all backgrounds are more likely to suffer the low incomes and job insecurity characteristic of traditional working-class experiences. In addition, just as with the general working-class population, young people who are motivated to vote generally understand that Labour has more to offer them.

The problem is that the party simply is not reaching enough young voters, rendering them disenfranchised by default. The higher youth turnout (and shift to Labour) evident at the 2017 election stalled in 2019.

Furthermore, we know that young C2 and DE voters (proxies for working-class) had a turnout of only 49 and 35 per cent, respectively, in 2017. My own research on young, precarious workers has highlighted a profound disconnection between this group and the labour movement. There is no evidence that this changed in 2019. Given that those that did vote strongly favoured Labour, a higher turnout could have spared a lot of Labour losses in working-class areas.

4. Failure to engage the electorate

The broader lesson Labour needs to learn is that its policies must arise from genuine dialogue with the electorate.

Some of the best ideas associated with Corbyn’s Labour have been generated by an impressive group of young(ish), left-liberal intellectuals pushing an agenda centred around community wealth-building, the democratisation of finance, new forms of public ownership, and mainstreaming action to address climate change. In fact, Corbynism as a political project should be understood properly as an alliance of this new new left of ‘soft’ Corbynites, and the old hard left in the leader’s inner circle.

The problem is that both groups are unrepresentative of the voters Labour needed to win, and isolated from the party’s base.

It is perhaps revealing that, despite the scale of the 2019 defeat, few commentators are drawing analogies with the 1983 manifesto, the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’. The painful truth is that the Corbyn manifesto barely registered with the electorate. It sowed confusion, not revulsion.

Labour needs to think a great deal more about how potential voters absorb its ideas. The best way of doing this would be to ensure that its ideas start from where voters are in the first place.

Some radical thinkers worry that such dialogue serves to dilute radicalism. This is, essentially, a centrist account of working-class preferences which has little basis in reality, yet has been internalised by the Labour left.

Labour needs to listen more. They might like what they hear.

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