This week, manifesto week, we benefited from a rare public glimpse into the psyches of the two main candidates for Prime Minister and their closest advisers. The manifestos themselves tell you a bit about what a Government of either shade may seek to do. But their framing and their priorities also tell us an awful lot about what Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn really think is going on in British politics.
First up was Labour’s launch – or relaunch, if you like, given that the whole thing had been leaked the week before. There was little to surprise anyone who had read the widely disseminated early draft which was, in its own way, a victory for Corbyn. If members of the NEC and National Policy Forum had been hoping to significantly water down the manifesto, they failed. Whoever sent the document surreptitiously and early succeeded in making major revision of it more difficult and less productive – perhaps that gives you a clue as to who may have done the leaking.
‘For the many, not the few’ is – in truth – a tight, effective retail manifesto that most Labour members will be more than happy selling on the doorstep. There are direct offers to voters on wages as well as funding boosts across public services and a populist tax plan that targets multinationals and the highest earning 5%. All of this is controversial, of course. But none of it is so far beyond the mainstream of Labour thinking that it frightens the activists. Which tells us something interesting about Labour’s analysis of our political landscape.
Jeremy Corbyn and his tight-knit band of brothers and sisters do not expect to win this election. They are not ‘delusional’ and they do understand that their poll gap, combined with their performance in the local elections, points mercilessly towards defeat. And so the question is not ‘what will we do in power’ it is ‘how do we protect the project’. The events of the last fortnight, and the contents of the manifesto, point to a strategy. They intend to build the case for Jeremy to remain Leader despite defeat. They will deploy two primary arguments to achieve this goal. First, they will claim that the Leadership was sabotaged by the Parliamentary and professional Labour Party – leaks, briefings, whispers and plots all mean that Corbyn should get a second bite of the cherry whilst at the same time the whole cherry tree is subjected to ‘root and branch’ reform. Second, they will say, despite Blairite efforts to the contrary Corbyn achieved the same or a higher share of the vote to Ed Miliband – therefore, like Kinnock, he ought to be allowed another go. And it is that argument which explains the manifesto.
The Labour Leadership is not fighting this election with the primary purpose of winning votes in marginal seats in order to achieve a Parliamentary majority. They are fighting it to pile up votes in safer seats – in London, in Liverpool – in order to build a case for Corbynite continuity around vote share. If they can poll on Election Day what they are polling today they believe they can cling on. Which is sad for long-serving Labour MPs in marginals across the Midlands, the rural North and Wales. But given that such MPs tend to be on the moderate wing of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn may find life a whole lot easier without them anyway.
The Conservative Party is pursuing a strategy that is – neatly – almost the direct reverse of Jeremy Corbyn’s. Theresa May went into this election determined to achieve her own mandate and to throw off the shackles of Cameron’s 2015 programme for Government. She believes that she will win, and win big. And she wants the maximum political space within which to operate once she has. At the same time, she has her eye on Labour seats (particularly those that voted for Brexit across the North and in Wales) and wants to seal the deal with voters who are not traditional Tories. Thus a manifesto that seeks to correct the free market fundamentalism of the past, commits to a clean and meaningful Brexit and doubles down on reducing immigration despite past failures.
This is not a risk-free prospectus by any measure. It looks very likely that Theresa May knows that her controversial moves on older people’s benefits and care will harm her electorally but that she considers her position strong enough to do it anyway and has decided that giving herself a mandate is more important than a couple more seats in a landslide. May needs the policy space and the power of the Salisbury Convention (that the Lords do not permanently block legislation that was in the manifesto) if she is to sort some of the intractable social and economic issues that are holding Britain back. Labour strategists think she has blundered with a key voting demographic and that the ‘Dementia Tax’ will haunt the Tories in the future and provide a way back for Labour into these voters.
The campaign has also given us insight into who the Prime Minister likes and trusts and who – frankly – she does not. Her Cabinet are not being deployed evenly and her manifesto speaks to some Ministers’ interests considerably better than others. Greg Clark, Amber Rudd, David Davis and Michael Fallon all look safe and secure (or strong and stable, if you prefer). Sajid Javid, Phillip Hammond and Liz Truss…. less so.
Meanwhile, the yellow peril has failed to break through. Tim Farron came into this campaign brimming with optimism, he is looking a little more world-weary now. Truth be told, Remainers simply aren’t breaking along their referendum lines in the way that Brexiteers appear to be. The ‘48%’ Remainers who the Lib Dems hoped to translate into supporters are not playing ball – instead Farron’s Party dwindles at around the same levels they managed in 2015. This was their big chance but if nothing significant changes the game soon we can expect the Liberal Democrats to wake up on June 9th with roughly the same Parliamentary presence as they have now.
Over the next week, expect to see Jeremy Corbyn touring safe Labour seats hoping to pile on useless votes. Theresa May will continue to tour factories in Northern towns whilst her Cabinet display a mixture of mischief and ambition by doorstepping in ultra-safe Labour territory. Tim Farron will likely spend yet another week defending and then abandoning one or other unfashionable view from his past. All the while, UKIP will continue to lose both relevance and dignity. Just three more weeks to go!
Scores on the Doors:
Poll of Polls (Britain Elects; May 19) – Con 47.1; Lab 30.1; Lib Dem 8.7; UKIP 5.3; Grn 2.7
Bookies Odds (Ladbrokes GE Overall Majority) – Con Maj 1/16; No Overall Maj 12/1; Labour Maj 20/1; Lib Dem Maj betting suspended; UKIP Maj 1,000/1
Quote of the Week: “There is no ‘Mayism’ […] there is good solid Conservatism,” Theresa May declared to journalists when discussing the contrasts in her manifesto with the free-market approach taken by Thatcher.