There is much still to learn from the 2017 election manifesto, For The Many Not The Few, says its lead author, ANDREW FISHER
Five years ago this week, we were in the middle of the 2017 General Election campaign – a week in which both Labour and the Conservatives launched their manifestos. They got quite different public responses.
Having been the policy chief in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership in 2015, in December 2016 I was made the Labour Party’s executive director of policy and was responsible for writing Labour’s manifesto.
Even then, I was denied operational control of the policy team in Labour HQ – and so I had a team of just four staff in the Leader’s Office and no budget to commission further policy work.
Thankfully my team of four was amazing – as were many of the policy advisers that worked directly for shadow cabinet ministers. Luckily too, I had also managed to borrow (actually, take) a bit of shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s office budget for some policy polling in early 2017.
Since Theresa May had succeeded David Cameron as Conservative leader and Prime Minister in the summer of 2016, there had been repeated speculation that she would call an early General Election – something which she denied. Nevertheless, from late 2016 we had begun planning for an election, and I had started preparing the core policies that would be unveiled.
For the first nine months of Jeremy’s leadership, the Labour frontbench had been a virtual policy desert.
Jeremy had appointed a broad-based shadow cabinet in an attempt to demonstrate pluralism, but the frontbench acted as a block on any radical policy. In the summer of 2017, two-thirds of the shadow cabinet resigned and launched a coup against the elected leader.
With a new shadow cabinet, and Jeremy reconfirmed as party leader in September 2016, we had a chance to develop the sort of programme that had inspired people to join Labour in record numbers and to vote for Corbyn to become their leader.
On April 18 2017, a podium was placed outside No10 Downing Street. Theresa May announced she would be calling an election after all. Thankfully, we had been working on a series of proposals – some of which had launched the previous week – in the run-up to the scheduled local elections that May.
The lack of enthusiasm from senior Labour staff in the party’s HQ was dispiriting, as my supposed senior colleagues met to discuss our election tactics.
“Manifestos don’t change anything.”
“No one reads them.”
I responded. “There hasn’t been a manifesto like this one for a long time,” I said, despite not having written a word of it and with just three weeks left before the 23,000-word document would go to the Clause V meeting which formally agrees Labour’s manifesto.
After the formality of Parliament voting for the election, the first major decision was which constituency Jeremy should visit first. To fit with our disputed offensive campaign strategy, I suggested we go to Croydon Central – then a Tory-held marginal and the seat of housing minister Gavin Barwell.
Barwell reacted to the visit by asserting, “I think the more Jeremy Corbyn is seen in Croydon the happier I’ll be…
“The more the Labour Party wants to put Jeremy Corbyn at the front of their campaign in Croydon the better I think I’ll do out of it.”
What had changed from two years earlier?
Well for one, Labour membership in Croydon Central had swelled from around 300 members to 1,200 – a quadrupling that exceeded the massively increased membership across the country. National membership increased from 190,000 to more than 500,000.
Organised by Momentum, activists swarmed into Croydon Central – even as London Region directed party members to Labour-held Tooting and other safe seats across the capital, as they continued to run a defensive campaign even as the polls showed support for the party was surging.
And, as it turns out, the manifesto was read – it was downloaded 6million times from the Labour Party website in the space of three and a half weeks, and it did change things.
Not least, it mobilised activists to come out and campaign.
In their definitive academic study of the 2017 election, Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley wrote that the Labour manifesto, “… was also extremely popular among party supporters and campaigners; candidates and local organisers talked of how the policies had energised party workers and had given them something to offer voters”.
A Guardian editorial on May 17 said of the manifesto, “Its achievement is to expand the limits of the thinkable in British politics.”
Even three and a half years later, when Keir Starmer was campaigning to be Labour leader, he spoke effusively about the 2017 manifesto, saying, “The radicalism and the hope that that inspired across the country was real. So we have to hang on to that as we go forward.”
Whether Keir agrees with his own words now is, at best, up for debate…
At the start of the 2017 election campaign, Labour had been 25 points behind the Conservatives in the polls. That gap closed to just 2.4per cent, removing the Tories’ majority.
Labour gained seats in a General Election for the first time since 1997, adding 30 MPs and 3.5million votes from just two years earlier. The Labour share of the vote increased by more than at any time since 1945.
And why? A YouGov poll conducted at the time was clear: more than any other factor, it was the manifesto.
A lot has changed in Britain and the world since 2017.
But oh, how Labour now could do with the unity, energy and positivity that that manifesto generated …
- Andrew Fisher has worked as a trades union official, researcher and writer, and from 2015 to 2019 as Labour’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is the chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and in a personal capacity now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon.co
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