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Hopes and suicide notes

As Labour draws up the pledges it will put to the voters, it may find inspiration – or warnings – in

Labour's Call to the People (1918)

“Labour's programme is comprehensive and constructive. It is designed to build a new world, and to build it by constitutional means."

Labour's early manifestos focused on a few specific issues and emphasised the importance of labour representation as a principle. The 1918 document was far more substantial, outlining a programme for a fair peace, more openness in international relations, freedom for Ireland and India, progressive taxation, improvements in housing, health, education and conditions of employment, and land reform. It marked a crucial point in the party's development, as it contested large numbers of seats across the country for the first time. At the first general election in which women were eligible to vote, Labour claimed to be "the Women's Party", insisting on equal rights and full adult suffrage. And there was a commitment to an overtly socialist agenda: "The immediate nation­alisation and democratic control of vital public services."

Election result: Coalition government

Let Us Face the Future (1945)

“The nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation and re-equipment of its homes, its factories and machinery, its schools, its social services."

The winning programme set out here defined the party for years to come. The central policies - for full employment, nationalisation of the Bank of England, public ownership of key industries, social security and a national health service - featured prominently among the achievements of the Attlee government. Socialist principles were asserted boldly, but the decisive factor was that voters identified Labour as the party most likely to ­deliver on housing and the introduction of ­social insurance. Let Us Face the Future concluded not with a reinforcement of particular policy commitments, but with a pragmatic appeal to the progressive vote.

Election result: Labour's first majority

Let's Go with Labour for the New Britain (1964)

“Skill, talent and brainpower are our most important national resources."

This manifesto was all about planning. There were plans for industry, the regions, transport, tax reform and prices, with ambitious goals to modernise the British economy and stimulate technological development. The tone was up-beat and informal, but there was substance, too, with commitments to (among other things) disarmament, a charter of rights for employees, attacks on waste in public expenditure, action against racial discrimination and the creation of a Ministry for Overseas Development. The manifesto also committed to state funding for sport, the arts and youth centres. The Wilson administration made considerable progress with this reform agenda, and returned with an increased mandate in 1966.

Election result: Narrow Labour win

Let Us Work Together - Labour's Way Out of the Crisis (February 1974)

“The aims set out in this manifesto are Socialist aims, and we are proud of the word."

This manifesto set a new trend, being prefaced by a message from the party leader, Harold Wilson. Against a background of soaring oil prices, rampant inflation, industrial unrest and the three-day week, Labour claimed the challenges facing the coun­try justified far-reaching solutions. It included an explicit statement on the redistribution of income and wealth, and argued for public ownership of Britain's oil and gas resources and greater use of public transport. In retrospect, the most optimistic part was its aspiration to "create a new spirit in industry". Labour continued with its promise of a "social contract" when it returned to the country for a renewed mandate in October 1974, slightly increasing February's fragile majority.

Election result: Even narrower Labour win

The New Hope for Britain (1983)

“Given our commitment to increase public spending, it is right that people should ask: how will we pay for it?"

Described by Gerald Kaufman as "the longest suicide note in history", this manifesto was certainly long, packed with details of a comprehensive programme. Some of the most striking features were commitments to cancel Trident, renationalise industries and withdraw from the EEC. At its heart was an aim "to reduce unemployment to below a million within five years of taking office". Against the new theology of Thatcherite economics, the manifesto reasserted Keynes­i­an­ism as the route to full employment. The social elements presented a radical agenda, including positive action against inequality in the workplace, the banning of hunting with dogs and an overhaul of the honours system. Some of these causes continued to resonate within Labour's core support, but the key policy commitments were soon tarnished as symbolic of what made the party unelectable and evidence of the need to modernise.

Election result: Conservative landslide

New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better (1997)

“Education will be our number one priority."

The two major themes in 1997 were that Labour would keep its promises and that the party had changed. The manifesto, which Tony Blair characterised as a "covenant" with the electorate, made ten commitments, with prominence given to education, devolution, the pledge to "save the NHS", and the promise to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". The most notable action of the new administration was hinted at rather than made explicit in the manifesto: giving the Bank of England independence to control monetary policy.

Election result: Labour landslide

Clare Griffiths lectures in British history at the University of Sheffield

This article appears in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter