Political manifestos are infamously fallible guides as to what a party will actually do if it wins office. That is especially true in these uncertain times when policies might have to be traded away as the price of forming a coalition government.
But a manifesto can still tell us something about what a party stands for, its priorities, and how it thinks it can win votes.
What did Labour’s manifesto launch tell us?
First, it confirms that Ed Miliband’s party has moved on from New Labour. But not by much. As Miliband said, when answering questions from journalists, the party has adapted to different challenges to the ones it faced in the 1990s. Miliband – once dubbed ‘Red Ed’ of course – has however ensured his party has adapted in very particular ways, even if his rhetoric is more radical than the reality.
Miliband’s leftwing populism is a definite break with New Labour. This has it that the ‘richest and most powerful’ must bear the biggest burden in the age of austerity: but these words are belied by the modesty in how they will do so. Labour’s policies, such as restoring the 50p top rate of tax, a mansion tax and the abolition of non-dom tax status, go some small way to making Britain a more equal society. Similarly the abolition of zero-hours contracts, raising the minimum wage and protecting tax credits will help raise the living standards of working people, but not by much.
We can, then, overestimate how far Labour has moved on from the Blair-Brown years. Miliband is not ‘anti-business’, just ‘anti-business as usual’: he wants to make capitalism work but for more people. That he could ever have been seen as more than a right-wing social democrat says something about Britain’s crazily skewed neo-liberal political discourse than it does about him. Hence, Miliband’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, paid for by a bank bonus tax, which will provide a job for every young person unemployed for over a year, which they must take or lose benefits is a blatant steal from New Labour’s 1997 manifesto.
Second, by emphasising so strongly that ‘every promise we make is paid for’, that Labour will reduce the deficit every year in office and aim for a surplus in the current account after two years – and pledging that such activity be monitored by the Office of Budget Responsibility – Labour is trying to show that these modest ambitions can be achieved within conventional norms of economic ‘responsibility’. By at least a ratio of 2:1 the Conservatives lead Labour as the party most trusted to manage the economy. It is unlikely this framing of Labour’s manifesto will significantly shift views established many years ago, but it does show the limits against which Red Ed’s party feels it must work within.
Finally, only time will tell if what the party outlined today will work electorally. The manifesto contained no surprises, except those of emphasis. Labour is saying it can be radical but within conservative constraints: indeed its failure to match recent Tory promises regarding the funding the NHS means Labour is offering less than Cameron’s party. That what Labour does promise is fully funded might be a claim that impresses a number of undecided, swing voters in England: it might allow the party to win a few more marginal seats. And in this closely fight election that make all the difference between remaining in Opposition and having a shot at forming a government. But it is unlikely to thwart the SNP surge, something that might still prevent Miliband becoming Prime Minister. Nicola Sturgeon’s claim to be the only social democratic party leader in Scotland might be dubious but it is one many former Labour voters believe – and Miliband’s commitment to continue cutting unprotected services will not do him many favours north of the border.
Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History and Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. This post first appeared on the University of Nottingham’s Newsroom blog available here.
Image credit: BBC