The election battle lines are emerging now the nasty contents of the nasty party’s manifesto have been laid out, says
AFTER several weeks of bland slogan-bleating, Theresa May got round to delivering her manifesto. The optics of her launch were beyond parody — she addressed a group of supporters in a Victorian mill, with the shouts from trade unionists outside faintly audible in the background.
May went on to announce reducing winter fuel payments for old people, axing school meals for infants, fining people who employ foreigners, increasing corporate tax cuts and bringing back fox hunting.
She tore up the experts’ report on social care funding, replacing it with a lottery where you can leave £1 million to your children if you’re healthy but have to sell your house if you need home care.
The field was left open for more cuts, alongside an acknowledgment that Britain’s deficit will not be fixed before 2025 (they’d promised to eliminate it by 2015.)
There is some insufficient funding pledged for the NHS and education, and a miniature industrial strategy; as if they have built small die-cast toy versions of Labour’s ideas. But there is no transformative vision.
May’s programme is a retreat to old-fashioned Toryism — parochial, punitive and predicated on a transfer of wealth and power from the bottom to the top. Yet with the assistance of a pliant tabloid press, May has been able to spin her programme as a new working-class conservatism forged by her centrist advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
“Blue Labour,” screamed the Sun, which will presumably irk Blue Labour founding thinker Maurice Glasman. “The most left-wing Tory leader ever,” said another headline.
Such a title should surely go to Harold Macmillan — the Conservative PM who broke his house-building targets and increased public service spending every year.
May’s programme does not even begin to approach anything so radical; she has a couple of lines about the drawbacks of the free market and some very limited plans for state intervention that are entirely compatible with mainstream conservatism (even if rhetorically articulated sharply enough to set cats among Thatcherite pigeons.)
May is aiming to be all things to all people. She is hoping to appear conciliatory and centrist to wavering Labour supporters. She is hoping to appear a Brexit warrior to hardline Leavers and to Thatcherites concerned about her “leftward” swing, while also being a pragmatist to Remain-voting realists.
In doing so she is haphazardly borrowing from all corners of the Conservative tradition. Played well, her refusal to define “Mayism” will make her an inclusive figure across the British right. Played poorly, she will appear to be treading water and directionless — a Conservative Ed Miliband.
Targeted intervention from the left can help to ensure May’s hand is played poorly. Her manifesto launch was followed by former Tory voters abandoning their party live on LBC, a tear-stricken woman phoning in who feared losing her home, Jamie Oliver and Leon restaurants slamming the school meals plan and a car-crash interview with Michael Gove where his understanding of his own party’s migration policy fell apart.
All of these things have been ruthlessly seized on by Labour, followed by a Friday morning press conference which savaged May’s programme.
“Gone was the commitment to raise working people’s living standards,” said shadow chancellor John McDonnell of the manifesto.
“Gone was the commitment not to raise taxes on working people. And gone was the commitment to protect pensioners’ incomes through the triple lock.”
These words, if they can be projected far enough, could be devastating among the Tory core vote. All this was after Ipsos Mori polling put Labour on its highest share yet.
But is any of this cutting through on the ground? I wrote last week that any battle fought on the terrain of concrete policy benefits Labour, and this view seems to be bearing up.
“While the Establishment press get bogged down in the day-to-day tittle-tattle of politics,” says former Corbyn spokesman Matt Zarb-Cousin, “the public only really engage with it when an election is called. Ipsos Mori puts Labour on 34 per cent today, 4 per cent higher than it achieved in 2015. That is evidence of cut-through achieved by a much more engaged electorate, popular policies in the manifesto, and Theresa May’s disappearing act.”
Academic and Scottish campaigner Ewan Gibbs agrees. “The Labour manifesto has provided the key talking points of the campaign so far. On the doors the abject hostility of 2015 has dissipated and voters are more open to discussing policy.”
One staffer at Labour’s northern HQ gives a more cautious picture. “It’s hard to describe,” she says. “Some people are just going through the motions, some see it as limiting damage. I have days that are optimistic, where the media is at odds with feedback from real people, and days when you hear the media’s lines in voters’ mouths. I’m just throwing everything into this election and trying not to think about the outcome.”
But in ultra-marginal Derby North, campaigner Lewis Bassett is buoyant. “We’ve had unprecedented numbers on the doorsteps, people are fired up by manifesto. Last week the Greens decided not to stand and have actively backed [Labour candidate] Chris Williamson. The task remains to put clear red water between Ukip and the Tories, and Labour’s manifesto gives us a chance to do that.”
As the voter registration deadline looms, the clock is ticking on ensuring people are signed up. After Monday, the status of the electorate will be clearer and campaigners will be more able to calculate the size and shape of the mountain they are climbing.
With both manifestos now on the table, some of that clarity has already being achieved. On one side, there is a reanimated, unashamedly ghoulish zombie-Toryism, relying on fear-mongering over migration, public support for further cuts, an extreme vision of Brexit and a thin veneer of inclusivity. On the other, there is a strident pitch for redistributing wealth and power; through a £10 minimum wage and new charter for rights at work, a public services revolution and popular control of rail and utilities.
With the smaller parties in England flailing, the election becomes a more simply-drawn contest every day and consensus-seekers are left with no real home. We are now less than three weeks away from the most defiantly political election in decades.