Wednesday, June 04, 2008

May manifesto

One reason why it would have been good to have had a leadership contest last summer is that it would have offered a chance for leftie ideas to get a wider airing beyond the small group of people who follow left-wing politics closely. This would have meant that Labour had more of an idea about which ones really struck a chord with the public, and which ones are worth abandoning or at least not making a priority of.

This occurred to me again when reading the 'May manifesto' which John McDonnell has circulated. It claims that Labour can win back the support of the people by :

Introducing a fair tax system removing the low paid from taxation and ensuring the wealthiest and corporations pay their fair share
Increasing the basic state pension, immediately restoring the link with earnings, lifting people off means tested benefits and providing free care for the elderly
Building council houses
Keeping post offices open
Not privatising public services
Paying public sector workers more
Abolishing student fees and bringing back grants for all students
Scrapping ID cards, 42 days detention and Trident
Giving trade unions more powers and temps and agency workers more rights

I'm sympathetic to each of those items, but this is more shopping list than manifesto. I have three particular concerns:

Firstly, a back of an envelope calculation adding up all of the above makes that a £15bn + tax cut for low paid workers (depending on what 'removing them from taxation' means - presumably they would still pay VAT, for example?) and extra spending of some £60 bn +, increasing significantly year on year. The government saves a bit from not renewing Trident and not bringing in ID cards, but those are mainly one off savings, which means tax rises on wealthy individuals and businesses of some £70 billion per year. That probably is more like their fair share of the overall national wealth, but I don't reckon they will see it like that, and I'm not particularly confident that it is possible to get that sort of money out of them.

Secondly, if there really is an extra £75 billion of revenue out there which could be raised from scrapping unpopular projects and from increased taxes on wealthy people and corporations, it seems a bit harsh that most of the poorest pensioners, children, disabled people and people who are out of work don't get to see any of it. Why prioritise relinking pensions to earnings, but not out of work benefits, for example, and why should the pensioner on £400/week get more than one on £120/week?

Thirdly, there isn't any common theme to these policies, beyond the fact that different lobby groups want them. The best manifestos are ones where the policies are linked by a common theme, and where together they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

These are just policy criticisms, there is a whole different debate about how to present these sorts of things and what thinking would be needed to answer critics, but the sad truth is that the rich and powerful don't even need to bother criticising this kind of thing because they don't have to worry that it will be enacted.

As a way to signal discontent with the policies of the current government, and as a wish list of policies which lefties would like to see taken up in one form or another, the May Manifesto is perfectly adequate. But it is not the kind of programme which is anywhere near being a viable alternative to the current set of policies of the government, and that is a great shame.


At 6:23 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

I agree that this is more a rallying cry than a "manifesto".

But to be fair, he did produce a 60-odd page booklet with a coherent narrative during his leadership campaign that could more accurately be described as a manifesto. Have you read it?

At 7:07 am , Anonymous A.H. said...

I'd second Tim regarding that booklet.

John's budgetary proposals are usually fully costed by the Left Economics Advisory Panel made up of academic, ex-government and City (!) economists. Certainly the ones in the leadership campaign were.

Unfortunately-and this is a bad presentational error-the cost breakdowns I have only seen published in the Red Papers and in Labour Left Briefing whose readers are not the people to be won over. Even in the Fabian debate when Brown came up with some ludicrous nonsense about rises in pensions and child benefit *alone* costing 60 bilion, McDonnell failed to make this point.

I remember thinking LEAP had probably been a bit optimistic on tax revenues and somewhat underestimated public spending costs but I didn't think their figures were wildly off. I seem to remember the leadership budget being costed at around £20 billion. But it didn't include all the things in the May Manifesto (although the priorities were better-child benefit was in there) which would clearly amount to more than that. Even so I think your estimate of £60 billion cost is a considerable overestimate.

I agree with you on McDonnell's priorities i.e. that they are insufficiently left wing. McDonnell appears obsessed with helping Labour win the next election by winning over the floating votes of Middle England through having popular policies giving money to graduates, pensioners and public sector workers rather than in maintaining our socialist purity by helping the poorest. He should recognise a balance needs to be struck between the two. :)

But seriously, it would be a lot better if the Labour left (and indeed other people in the Labour Party)first outlined the objectives they thought Labour ought to pursue and then related policies to that rather than just having policies standing as ends in themselves.

Although this will sound worryingly Nick Cohen-esque, I think the loss (at least for the time being) of the transition to a fully socialist society as a plausible objective has meant the Labour left is bereft of a guiding objective for its policies, hence being left with the random collection of policies to appeal to different groups with no clear coherence. The Labour left needs to articulate what its vision of a better form of capitalism is, which many on the left are uncomfortable with doing even though they accept that a better form of capitalism is what-for now- we are aiming at.

At 8:31 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Thanks to both tim and a.h. This is a useful and interesting discussion.

tim - I thought the longer manifesto had many of the same advantages and disadvantages as the May manifesto, some good ideas, some not so good ideas (the restoration of the committee system in local government) and no real overarching narrative.

I had thought that the process of a leadership election would have helped to sort the wheat from the chaff a bit in terms of these policies and priorities.

As a.h. points out, though, in fact Team Brown's only response to any alternative policy suggestion, whether it comes from John McDonnell or David Cameron, seems to be that it would be too expensive and we can't pay for it (be that putting up child benefit or putting young people into boot camps). Again, it would have been useful to have learned that during the Leadership campaign rather than discovering it when the Tories came out with increasingly more demented (but not particularly unaffordable) policies.

a.h. Good points all round. I went back to look at some of LEAP's stuff - they've got (based on government answers) the elderly stuff at £12 bn, which seems lower than I would have thought, but the student stuff at £16bn to write off all the debt plus £2bn to write off fees. Introducing grants was £5bn in 2003 prices. Then it depends partly on things like what not privatising means - if it means 'do all the PFI projects but through public borrowing', that's obviously different from if it means 'don't rebuild any more schools'. Similarly, 'tackle low pay in the public sector' might mean introducing a living wage, or it might just mean honouring the unions' current set of pay claims.

Just one little example of what I was worried about. There was one article in the March 2008 Red Paper budget response, which explained how tax cuts for low and middle earners could be cut by scrapping the National Insurance contribution ceiling and higher income and corporation taxes. Then the very next article explained how child benefit could be increased, and how this could be paid for by...scrapping the NIC contribution ceiling and exactly the same higher income and corporation taxes.

At 8:45 am , Blogger susan said...

I am not an economist but did attend the recent conference organised by LEAP . As others have pointed out, the May Manifesto was a rallying cry in response to the dismal local election results -it wasn't meant to be a comprehesnsive policy platform.
But to suggest that John McD 's main concern is Middle England is just not true.No-one points out more how Labour has failed to close the inequality gap, left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, left pensioners in fuel poverty etc etc etc.
John McD also opposes tax credits on gorunds they are unfair - and unclaimed by about 40 per cent of people. Tuition fees were, and are, unfcair and unacceptable - likewise studemt loans. On civil liberties, John McD's track record is expemplary - unlike his colleagues on the soft left.
If John's programme is "insufficiently left wing" then God help the rest of the Labour Party.I suggest critics read the LEAP ppaers and Another World Is Possible, the booklet published at the time of the (non) leadership election

At 11:06 am , Anonymous tim f said...

I'd agree that the headline policies in both John's election leaflets and "May manifesto" do not concentrate on equality as much as he did, for example, in his stump speech during his campaign, or his manifesto booklet. Btw I thought the manifesto booklet did have a coherent narrative, about opening up democratic space to create a globalisation from below effect whilst simultaneously addressing inequality so it isn't just middle class people who have the resources to participate. (Where the balance between those two ideas lies is something I don't always agree with John's ideas on, but I agree that there is a balance and we need to find it.)

I don't think it's a fair criticism of him as an individual to say that he doesn't focus on issues of equality, but I do think it's a valid question to ask: given the fact he stressed that theme in his stump speech and manifesto booklet, why isn't it more prominent in either the May Manifesto list of policies, or the lists that appeared on election leaflets.

I think the answer to this question does stem from different ways of winning elections, though not in the way a.h. describes.

John constantly writes about the need to avoid "sleepwalking" to a Tory government. Another point he consistently made in his stump speech was the need to "rebuild the Labour coalition". These shopping lists of policies seem to be an attempt to rebuild two types of coalition simultaneously - a coalition of voters who will elect a Labour government, and a coalition of activists who can deliver an election victory.

Caricaturing his and the New Labour approaches, you might say:

NL's is about appealing to Tory-inclined working class voters in Southern Marginal seats by seeming independent from trade unions, sensible on the economy and adopting a tough on crime & immigration agenda whilst slipping in targetted support for the poorest and a few socialist measures (but not too many that key voters notice and think we're left wing).

John's is about motivating a coalition of voters who are more likely to vote Labour and getting them out to vote, including public sector workers, pensioners who have long memories and remember the formation of the NHS etc, left-libertarians, students, trade unionists, "traditional" working-class voters, people who live in council homes, the low-paid, etc. And pleasing trade unions, single-issue campaigns & lobby groups enough that their members provide the activists to get that coalition to turn out.

My view is that (taking to one side the policy arguments on each approach) the New Labour approach is a more reliable way of winning elections when we are in opposition, because the Labour coalition is more likely to turn out anyway to get rid of the Tories. But that we need to move closer towards John's approach when we are in government and unpopular (especially when people need long memories to remember what the Tories were like).

I will comment on John's blog and direct him here so he can set the record straight on all our comments!

At 6:22 pm , Anonymous a.h. said...


sounds like you are thinking of the LRC manifesto. I think Tim and I mean McDonnell's personal 'Manifesto for 21st century socialism' which did have more of a coherent narrative.

The articles in the Red Papers are written by different people and aren't meant to be a group view. Of course John has made statements in support of many policies over the years. So do most of us if we haven't the responsibility. Maybe if I went through your old blog posts I might find a huge total spending figure and the same tax used to pay for things several times over.

That isn't the point.

At times McDonnell/LRC have produced 'shadow budgets' where they have set out their spending priorities for government and costed it and it is to these that I refer.

I do agree though that McDonnell,given his aspirations to lead Labour, should try more to limit the number of promises he makes and make clear the difference between the immediate things he would actually seek to implement and ideas he simply happens to like.

Incidentally, the 1999 Royal Commission put free elderly care at £1 billion, though I am sure that it would be far more expensive than that.

Susan - my comments on John selling out socialism to appeal to Middle England are meant to be read ironically, not literally. The fact is that many of McDonnell's policies *are* massively popular with middle income voters which is why some of the right wing attacks on him are so hilarious. But there is a serious point in that sometimes the left goes on so much about these policies that they drown out other less popular, but morally imperative, aspects of the left's agenda.

I don't think I agree with Tim regarding electoral strategy. We need BOTH average income floating voters and traditional left wing voters. The interests of the middle income voters are not the same as those of the rich and we should seek to have a set of social democratic policies that can unite floating and core, middle income and low income voters. They are, after all, all ordinary working people and their families.

New Labour in recent years has often acted as if it was seeking the votes of very high income voters and big business rather than voters with average incomes. And actively alienated core voters.

Floating middle income voters in the south are not natural Tories-if they are convinced Labour is on their side in improving their standard of living-both in terms of take home pay and the quality of public services-they will vote for us.

Although we should aim to win, the economic situation between now and the next election may mean we cannot win the support of the floaters next time. It would then be doubly important that we have retained the core vote to minimise the scale of the defeat.

At 10:02 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

"We need BOTH average income floating voters and traditional left wing voters. The interests of the middle income voters are not the same as those of the rich and we should seek to have a set of social democratic policies that can unite floating and core, middle income and low income voters. They are, after all, all ordinary working people and their families."

I agree with you - and was caricaturing both positions so as to magnify the difference between them for comparative purposes.


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