Labour’s 2017 manifesto was far from perfect – we can’t be bound by it forever

Even if you think the manifesto was spot on, then unless you believe the world has not changed, there must surely be things which need tweaking, improving, or more emphasis.

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Last week saw a number of my colleagues decide they could no longer remain Labour MPs. I won’t be leaving Labour, but I have no hesitation in saying that some of the reasons given by those who left shame all of us who stay. I still believe that the Labour Party is the best way of achieving the social and economic transformation we so desperately need in this country. It breaks my heart to see people who share our values, and should be part of achieving those changes, instead find themselves unable to stay in our party. 

And much as I respect Charlie Falconer, I am sceptical that the appointment of yet another senior lawyer to deal with the party’s anti-Semitism problem will get us anywhere. The problems are not procedural, or legal. They are political. Anyone at the top of our party who was determined to tackle anti-Semitism and who sat through Peter Willsman’s shouty rant at a National Executive Committee meeting last year would know he doesn’t belong on our party’s governing body, whether subsequently trained or not. They would have taken action to remove him. Unless the leadership is planning to begin by substituting Lord Falconer for Willsman, I imagine the problem will remain.

The terms in which those MPs who have left are now being criticised reflect a new threat to those of us who are determined to stay and fight for a Labour Party worthy of the name. We hear that they owe their success to Jeremy’s popularity, to the manifesto on which they stood, and nothing else. This is nonsense, and it cannot go unchallenged.

I know I am only an MP because my local Labour Party chose me, and I come from an area where the scale of Labour support means we usually win elections. I never forget that. Being a Labour MP is a privilege, not an entitlement. I do not believe for a moment that any Labour MP wins a seat simply because of their own personal merits. I know there are many people in every seat who do vote on an individual basis, but there just aren’t enough of them for anyone to win on that basis alone.

Support for the party is deeper than support for any individual, be that be as an MP or Jeremy as leader. Political parties in our electoral system are more than just mechanisms for enacting desired policy outcomes: few people see the world in such instrumental terms. As well as ways of achieving social and economic change — perhaps precisely because they are ways of achieving social and economic change — parties are also coalitions and tribes, bound by shared ideology, shared values, and countless friendships forged over lifetimes.

And that means that while my victory in 2017 in Houghton & Sunderland South, just like my victories in 2015 and 2010, owed something to who I am, and something to who Gordon, Ed, and Jeremy are, it owed much more to the tradition which for over a century Labour has embodied. At the same time, we do well to remember that electoral politics in our system is a zero-sum game. People who are not members of political parties often vote in elections to choose between variously unsatisfactory options for an uncertain future, rather than with unbounded enthusiasm for an individual they admire. Who we are up against matters, just as much as what we stand for. In 2017 we were up against the Prime Minister at her most robotic and standing on a manifesto that disintegrated around her, and a Liberal Democrat leader who struggled to bring himself to say that gay people were not sinners. Jeremy’s personal style caught the moment well. But such advantages are always contingent and relative to those of others, and never permanent or absolute.

As for the manifesto, no person can possibly agree with every word of a document that long unless they either know nothing about the policy areas contained within it or wrote it all themselves. That is the nature of the human condition: we all disagree with each other about things, and probably disagree most on things we know most about. There was much in the 2017 manifesto to welcome, but I have written before on its many shortcomings. More to the point, the notion that people voted Labour simply or primarily because of the manifesto does not bear examination. Most people never read it before voting. Most people never read any manifestos. For many years Sunderland has had amongst the highest rates of postal vote take-up in the country, and in a general election the majority of votes cast are usually cast by post. Our manifesto was published on Tuesday 16 May 2017 and postal votes were arriving on people’s doormats at the end of the week, and returning all through the week that followed. It is simply ridiculous to suggest that those electors were all voting for or against me in my constituency based on their personal judgement of a document that had been published less than a week earlier.

The prominence of manifestos in our political system owes much to the Salisbury Convention that the House of Lords will not oppose manifesto commitments, and therefore the more radical a party thinks it is being, the longer the manifesto needs be. Ours was a lengthy shopping list: neither a crisp statement of principles nor a coherent plan for government. This isn’t a particular criticism of 2017: manifestos are an inherently problematic way both of signalling policy and of binding parliamentarians. Familiarity with the routine should not blind us to its shortcomings. And as for the notion that Labour MPs “stood on that manifesto” (or indeed any manifesto), I have two objections. First, as individual candidates we get no role in shaping or even approving it. Second, even if any candidate had decided the document went far beyond what they believed to be acceptable, the deadlines both for candidates to be nominated and for them to then withdraw their nomination were on the Thursday before the manifesto was published. Every Labour candidate in 2017 stood as “Labour”, and the electors had a good idea what that meant without needing to see the manifesto, let alone to read it.

Finally, we lost. Nothing better illustrates the sadly changing nature of our party than our failure to come to terms with this fact. The manifesto failed to put us into government. It is not needed as a totem whose whispered power can subdue the Lords. It is time for us to move on, to learn from failure, to take advantage of having more time than the massive rush in which the 2017 manifesto was put together. It is telling that we now have within our party a political culture more focused on fidelity to past texts than relevance to future challenges. Even if you think the manifesto was spot on for 2017, then unless you believe the world has not changed, there must surely be things which need tweaking, improving, or more emphasis. In the platform we adopt ahead of the next election, I’d like to see clear commitments to lifting working families out of poverty, to stopping workers being exploited in the so-called gig-economy, an outline of how we propose to pay for social care, more on how we regulate the big social media and search companies, and a commitment, if we haven’t left yet, to a referendum on our membership of the European Union. 

These are among the challenges – along with all the wider issues that come from an ageing population, from automation, and from deindustrialisation - that will face the next Labour government. And it’s fine for the Tories to be focused on the past: that’s what they are there for. They don’t live for the hope of a better world. But we do: we have to articulate that hope, to plan to achieve it, to adjust our plans as the world changes, to win people over to our vision, to deliver the dream. We cannot simply demand loyalty to the failed programmes of the past: we must believe that our best days are yet to come.

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.