For the Many …

PREPARING LABOUR FOR POWER


Edited by MIKE PHIPPS

Preface by KEN LOACH

Foreword by JON LANSMAN

“Our manifesto was a key reason for our gains in the 2017 general election. Now its ideas need to be developed and radicalised. This book is a vital contribution to that process.”
—Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell


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About the Book

This lively anthology explores the pivotal role played by Labour’s manifesto during the extraordinary British election of June 2017, one in which the party, under the radical leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, closed a twenty point opinion poll deficit to come within a whisker of winning. It analyses the policies outlined in a widely-acclaimed programme showing how they can be developed further to become an effective blueprint for a future Labour government.

Mike Phipps’s introduction, based on discussions with key insiders, looks at the way the manifesto was assembled and at the crucial role it played in transforming Labour’s electoral fortunes. It is followed by chapters that expand on each of the manifesto’s sections, written by specialists who are expert in their respective fields. The contributors discuss the strengths and shortcomings of the policies and look at the ways they have been tested by events since the election, including the government’s floundering negotiations on Brexit, the catastrophic Grenfell tower block fire, and the escalating crisis in the National Health Service.

For the Many … provides a vital tool for activists who want to see the policies of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto expanded and radicalised as the party prepares for power.

Contributors: David Beetham, Malia Bouattia, Gregor Gall, Jeremy Gilbert, Stuart Hodkinson, Ewa Jasiewicz, Ruth Lister, Allyson Pollock, Glen Rangwala, Kiri Tunks, Hilary Wainwright and Chris Williamson.

250 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-32-3 • E-book 978-1-682191-33-0

About the Editor

mike phipps author photo

Mike Phipps is a long-standing member of the editorial board of Labour Briefing, a founding member of the Labour Representation Committee and a regular contributor to the website Left Futures. A long-term anti-war activist, he was a founder member of Iraq Occupation Focus and has edited its fortnightly e-newsletter for several years.

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction by Mike Phipps

The 2017 election was a battle between two competing narratives—a stable government offering a competent Brexit versus an insurgent Opposition, committed to fighting austerity and overcoming the divisions of the 2016 Brexit referendum with a promise of unity and inclusivity. To many, it looked like fear versus hope. These sound like platitudes, but they have content. The referendum campaign a year earlier had seen the stabbing to death of a pro-EU Labour MP by a neo-Nazi, who, according to witnesses, shouted, “Put Britain first” as he carried out the act. Following the referendum, racist attacks rocketed—by over 50% in the immediate aftermath.

It was thanks in no small part to the way Labour fought the 2017 general election that only 6% of people surveyed felt that immigration was the most important factor determining their vote. This breaks down as 9% of Conservative and 3% of Labour voters, down from 47% and 28% respectively in the 2015 general election.

Corbyn’s narrative was unifying on other fronts. The Brexit referendum pitted ‘left behind’ rural areas against urban ‘metropolitan elites’. It divided people on generational and ethnic lines, creating conditions where Theresa May felt she could shamelessly pitch for the ‘patriotic working class’. Faced with the inclusive themes of Corbyn’s campaign, this utterly failed to resonate.

The refusal of Corbyn to continue New Labour themes of demonising benefit claimants continued this unifying approach, ending the artificial division between the deserving and undeserving poor, which Labour had helped perpetuate in the past. One of the factors that fuelled popular support for Corbyn in his 2015 Party leadership bid was the abject failure in the summer of that year by Labour MPs to vote against Conservative Government benefit cuts. Corbyn’s principled position on this was reflected in his campaign, which exposed the nonsense that is talked about ‘unworthy’ benefit recipients, by highlighting how much of the welfare bill goes to people in work to subsidise their poverty pay.

The document

All these themes were fleshed out in Labour’s election manifesto. But this too was pigeon-holed by many in the “appealing to the choir” narrative, not least The Guardian which opined that it was based on “Mr Corbyn’s preference for energising his own support rather than persuading those outside it”. This turned out to be a classic misreading. YouGov found that the manifesto was the main reason people gave for voting Labour. Newly elected MP Laura Pidcock, introducing Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Carlisle some weeks after the election, described it as “unequivocal statement of hope”.

Its emphasis on ending austerity and supporting redistribution and public ownership was popular—in fact polling has shown re-nationalisation has been consistently favoured by most voters over several years, including during the 2015 election. There were plenty of other policies in the document that would appeal as well.

Those who worked on it were proud of the effect it had on the election campaign, in helping boost Labour’s vote, energising Labour Party members and engaging the public in a way that few manifestos ever have. It was written from scratch in the space of three weeks from when the election was called. This was a very challenging timeframe. Those involved estimate they averaged 80-100 hours per week to get it done.

It was drawn from papers written by the National Policy Forum (NPF), the labyrinthine process of policymaking developed in Labour’s years in opposition, when so-called moderates in charge of the party decided that the best way to move the party rightwards was to replace the sovereign policy-making power of Labour’s annual conference with a new structure. These papers had themselves been based on the ten pledges passed at Labour’s 2016 Conference following Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election, as well as two sets of policy documents from the two leadership elections in the last two years. There was a short manifesto consultation process which involved shadow cabinet members, the NPF and trade unions and party members via an online consultation.

The results of the online consultation helped prioritise the policy areas, but it was necessarily limited given the timeframe. “The party does not have a platform capable of involving members in the way that Podemos in Spain does,” one insider told me, “but this needs to happen: the NPF is structurally flawed and is not understood by 99% of members—and policy cannot only be made only once a year at an annual delegate conference.”

Different sections were written collaboratively between heads of policy in the Leader’s team, shadow cabinet members and the executive directors of policy. Almost immediately there were individual one-to-one meetings held with most of the shadow cabinet, and a consultative meeting of the NPF, all ahead of the drafting. Consultations on some specific issues carried on later into the process as policy was still being refined in some areas due to the unexpected snap election.

The costings were continually prepared as policy was developed. “The decision to publish a costings document was taken quite early on in the campaign,” one source said, “to demonstrate our economic credibility and as part of our more open approach to politics.”

For the many, not the few is an interesting title. It chimed with the theme of the local election campaign Labour had waged a month earlier. Conceptually, it sidesteps the slogan of the 99% versus the 1% of the Occupy movement and appears to speak of class interests while couching its message in populist language. The title was the same mantra articulated at declaration after declaration on an election night twenty years earlier that saw Tony Blair come to power with an unprecedented Labour majority.

But the content of the slogan had changed. Aspiration was still at the core but this was something that could only be achieved collectively. In contrast to the rampant individualism of earlier neoliberal projects, including that of Tony Blair, whose government promoted individual competition and cut social provision, Corbyn offered a very different vision. “We understand aspiration and we understand that it is only collectively that our aspirations can be realised,” he wrote in 2015. Insiders confirmed this. “We wanted to present a universalist and redistributionist vision to transform Britain for the many not the few,” one told me.

The 2017 manifesto was very different in content too. Firstly, it marked a return to traditional democratic socialist values of community solidarity and social justice. Secondly, it was concrete. There were specific pledges that cut through the usual bland platitudes that are the hallmark of most election manifestos, whatever the party. Even the section on foreign policy, as Glen Rangwala argues in his chapter, had some very specific commitments about recognising Palestine and allowing the Chagos islanders to return to their homeland. Thirdly, there was something to appeal to key sections of the electorate—the abolition of tuition fees, restoring the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour—real commitments that might be expected to generate enthusiasm among those affected. These policies appealed not just to traditional Labour voters: there is evidence to suggest among former UKIP and Conservative voters that Labour’s proposal to renationalise the railways and some utilities resonated as part of a narrative to take back control of Britain’s economy from the forces of globalisation.

These unifying themes appealed to voters. If the 2017 election was unusual in that large numbers of voters changed their views during the course of a short election campaign, Labour’s manifesto was one of the key reasons for their doing so. The jump in the opinion polls which Labour enjoyed suggests the document altered the course of the election.

But its appeal was not just to the electorate. The manifesto played an important role in overcoming the fractures within the Labour Party itself, not least among the parliamentary party, whose hostility to Corbyn was reflected in their overwhelming support for Owen Smith’s leadership challenge to Corbyn in 2016. “It was a manifesto I was proud to stand on,” said one Labour MP who voted for Smith in that leadership contest. “It really differentiated us from the Tories and it’s the first time I’ve felt that.”