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How Left-wing is Labour’s manifesto?

No change on its way. Credit: Getty

June 14, 2024 - 1:30pm

If Labour wins the election on 4 July as expected, it will be just the fifth time since WWII in which power has transferred from the Conservatives to Labour. As such, there has been heavy focus on the party’s manifesto this week, which has been described as a centrist, “business-friendly” document.

There is a belief in some circles that a “Left-wing” manifesto is a vote-loser. This was the mantra of Labour “modernisers” in the 1980s and 1990s, pointing to the electorally unsuccessful 1983 Labour manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”. The 2019 Labour manifesto has now become the manifesto bogeyman, as evidenced by Starmer’s own comment about the Tories producing a “Jeremy Corbyn-style” manifesto this week.

Yet, we should pause for a moment and consider whether Labour’s Left-wing manifestos have always been vote-losers. In my book with Mark Garnett and Gavin Hyman Keeping the Red Flag Flying, we draw on work from the Manifesto Project and other scholars to categorise Labour’s post-war manifestos in their ideological proximity to the 2017 Labour manifesto. Looking at the four elections in which power passed from the Conservatives to Labour, we find that two manifestos were ideologically similar to 2017: 1945 and 1964. The successful February 1974 manifesto was ideologically to its Left. In contrast, only the 1997 manifesto was to its Right.

By most accounts, the 2024 manifesto will sit on the Right of this ideological ledger. It is cautious, much more in the style of the 1997 document than the 1945, 1964, or 1974 winning manifestos. The fact that Labour might win on such a manifesto is not in itself evidence that only a “Right-wing” Labour programme is electorally viable.

Indeed, the record sheet for moderate manifestos is not stunning. In 1992, Labour MP Bryan Gould deplored his party’s “safety first” manifesto. Labour (wrongly) felt it could just tread water while the Tory ship sank under its own weight. Instead, Gould believed Labour needed to seek “a more positive and radical agenda” to win. Similarly, after Labour’s defeat in 2015, Labour MP Jon Cruddas condemned Ed Miliband’s “minimalist, safety-first offer”, which was also derided by the American political strategist David Axelrod as amounting to little more than “Vote Labour and win a microwave”.

In contrast, the Left-wing, election-winning manifestos of February and October 1974 assumed a kind of totemic status within the Labour Party and the wider movement. They became a measuring rod against which the Labour government was judged, not just by the public but also by its own ministers. Indeed, they sometimes became a rod by which Left-wing MPs would beat Labour ministers.

Will the 2024 Labour manifesto carry the symbolic and moral authority that the radical manifestos of 1974 did? These both seem doubtful. Indeed, a Labour landslide next month will be cited as proof, however spurious, that only a watered-down, safety-first manifesto will bring Labour to victory. This is only true if one’s political memory can only stretch as far back as 1997. For the latest crop of Labour MPs, this might be true, but if so, it’s a depressing prospect indeed.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

One thing the author isn’t considering is whether an innocuous manifesto might be a successful concealment of an intention to swerve left after the election is won. Normally that wouldn’t be possible, but the Tories are held in such contempt now that they are incapable of holding Labour to account in the public eye.

Starmer therefore may correctly calculate that he can be much vaguer than he otherwise could get away with, and the course of the election process so far seems to bear this out.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I suspect this author would heartily approve of the subterfuge you describe. After all, that was the Blair strategy in 1997.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

And there is no subterfuge in the Tory and Reform offerings? Entirely honest about public services, the consequences and trade offs on migration etc etc? Even this week Sunak talks about a further commitment to reduce NI whilst ducking whether he’ll continue to allow fiscal drag which wipes out any tax reduction for vast majority. As regards Farage it’s just one deception after another and his offering lacks any depth – because he knows he’ll never have to ‘own’ it. Just like his Brexit twaddle.
Some tax rises are coming, whoever would win. We all know that. The question is how and where and for what. Starmer has been clear – not on working people. Important phrasing that. The intention is work won’t be penalised. Unearned wealth might.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

We’re all “working people”. We just won’t be the right kind of working people.
As with any of these bromide phrases – “fairness” is another – they are always very careful to avoid defining exactly what they mean.
I fully expect he’ll have ex “working people” (pensioners) is his sights. I’m not saying that millionaire pensioners should be receiving winter heating payments (it’s absurd – and in a better, simpler system no one would) or that this group are under-taxed relative to the rest of us. But they’re “working people” too.
Besides that, Labour is also the party of non-working people (those on benefits) and will want to pay those more. Which is only possible by taking more from working people.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago

Welsh Labour hold tight to their manifesto except when they don’t, only when it suits them. With a huge majority expect Starmer to follow suit and more besides.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

After five years of New New Labour it won’t matter whether or not the party can win elections. The real power will have been put way beyond the reach of the electorate – even if it hasn’t already. That was the whole point of Maastricht and, although Brexit was a setback, a Starmer landslide will soon put us back on course to the Nirvana of government by the People Who Know Best.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 month ago

Labour won the election in 1974, presumably implemented their manifesto and left us a broke joke. Maybe people remember how left wing manifestos actually work.

Culturally Labour have lost the working class. If Reform manage to cut through perhaps both parties will get a shock.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

Thatcher changed everything. A left wing manifesto could not succeed just downstream of that change. To compare manifestos without taking that into account makes no sense.

Downstream of reckless bankers, lying Tory politicians and starve the poor, feed the rich austerity things look a bit different. Perhaps the country is ready for more radical change. And perhaps that will happen if the growth without investment strategy doesn’t work out.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  David Morley

Thatcher launched the Neo-liberal revolution. Blaire didn’t stop that, just temporarily ameliorated some of the consequences. Perhaps now 40 years later finally grasping and better appreciating the failures of neo-liberalism will result in a new direction. The international financial system and capital markets mean a Govt has to tread carefully but it can begin to walk in a different direction. Even the Right has to reflect on this, and will once the election over.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Thatcher simply recognised the forces and incentives that had made Britain the wealthiest nation in the world up to around 1900 and set about restoring some of these.
The same sort of ideas that Hong Kong and Singapore adopted with huge success, even as we abandoned them.
The key change from the mid 1980s was that people once again believed that they could create their own future and the country recovered some self confidence.
We started slipping into reverse in the 1990s. We’re now about to hit the accelerator – in the wrong direction.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Rose tinted PB IMO. Some felt liberated – the v Rich certainly. More felt abandoned. And we ended the 80s heading into a recession.
The Singapore model works for a City state. It won’t work for a large Country with our history. It’s a naive dream of some on the Right. Were the UK suddenly transported to the choke point of Malucca strait then perhaps, but Brexit also forgot our geography.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Blair didn’t stop it!? What planet are you on? He turbocharged it. Everyone I know became a millionaire for no good reason at all, blue collar people were driven out of the housing market and educated to be stupid, wages were compressed …

Your post above is an excellent example of the extraordinary extent to which the narrative has become the mirror image of reality.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  David Morley

Where are all these starving poor you speak of ?

J Boyd
J Boyd
1 month ago

The comparison with 1974 is interesting: the manifesto became irrelevant as the Labour government was overwhelmed by problems that it hadn’t even acknowledged.
History may well repeat itself.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
1 month ago

Ah, the 1970s. I guess we’ll all become Elton John when we hit 92% tax rares. After all, we’re already at 62%. We’re simply grateful we left last year. Neither party appears trustworthy on any topic and we feel as though we’ve left some kind of experimental rat trap full of broken promises, trip wires, and obfuscation. It was mentally toxic let alone damaging on the pocket. We breathe easier.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Strange though that growth rates remained higher then, despite the turmoil, than now. There was much wrong in the 70s but a more inquisitive look at what might have been beneficial that we’ve lost perhaps has some validity?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

You might do better looking at why growth is low these days. Things to consider might include: a) the effect of Net Zero policies and high energy prices, b) the effects of higher taxation and ever increasing regulation, c) the impact of increasing reliance on low-skilled labour (hand car washes, etc) rather than investing in automation. It is almost as if this was planned for – a feature and not a bug.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes and no PB. Top income tax rates now lower than in 70s, thus destroying the myth the two are linked to Growth rates, otherwise why was Growth then higher? Energy prices – you forget the Oil price shock from 73. Now I would agree on too much reliance on low skilled labour today and a failure to have a national skills strategy. Apprenticeships etc much more prevalent in the 70s.
Where I’d point us is to four key other contributors – i) firstly we’ve a much older population than in the 70s and demographics may be playing a role in slowing Growth rates ii) only 2% of UK Pension funds invested here – massive drop and contributing to a general starvation of capital investment iii) the v Rich have pulled away appreciably from everyone else and doing v well just through asset accumulation rather than job and wealth creating endeavour iv) the form of Brexit we took and episodes like Mad Liz premiership made UK seem a much less attractive place to invest.
But these are the discussions needed

Mick James
Mick James
1 month ago

If Labour wins the election on 4 July as expected, it will be just the fifth time since WWII in which power has transferred from the Conservatives to Labour

Given that power has transferred from Labour to the Conservatives “just” four times (if you count the Coalition) it’s hard to see why this is a point worth making at the top of the article.