A Tale of Two Labour Manifestos: ‘Choice’ and the Absence of England

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy. April 12th 2010

The Labour manifesto has been launched finally today – the 25th British election manifesto according to BBC lunchtime news. It is a day of multiple Labour manifesto launches with the main British programme, and Scottish and Welsh versions, published.

I am going to focus my attention here on the British and Scottish editions, as these are the ones I am familiar with, so apologies to Welsh readers.

The British Labour manifesto, ‘A Future Fair For all’ (also the title of the Scottish and Welsh versions) has already won the battle of the pre-election slogans. The document itself is a strange mix, harking back in its images, colours and iconography, to a ‘brave new dawn’ and to the spirit of 1945 (as well as apparently the ‘New Jerusalem’ millennial hope of Labour in 1923 which had the theme, ‘Greet the Dawn’). George Eaton on the other hand in the ‘New Statesman’ thinks it draws from Maoist imagery (1).

Yet in content, this is a strange document with the sense of a transition from one age to another. In numerous places it makes the claim that we can no longer afford to continue ‘business as usual’, but its whole feel o is of a complacent Stanley Baldwinesque safety-first approach.

Now it is true that the document does not quite fall to the levels of the previous documents which signed us out of previous Labour eras – Wilson’s self-congratulatory ideology free manifesto of 1970, or Callaghan’s timid, conservative manifesto of 1979 which was exorcised of even the slightest radical proposals on his personal orders. This is not quite a document that reaches the nadir of those years, but given the economic, social and political crises the UK is facing this is not a forward-looking or bold document.

Fascinatingly, one of the areas the document makes great play is in its continuation of the Blairite ‘choice’ public sector reform agenda, with personalisation of health and parent power pushing the boundaries even further into new areas.

This is where comparison with the Scottish Labour document provides salutary reading. For this is the main area where the Scottish manifesto departs from script, not developing any of the ideas of the ‘choice’ agenda. Instead, what Scottish voters are offered is not ‘choice’, but the ‘ring-fencing’ of education, health and police in the Scottish Parliament.

Both the British and Scottish manifestos come with short animated films which are worthy of close examination, combining a degree of playfulness with a lightness of tone and content. Its characters are a family of five, Joe and Jane and their three children, with Joe in the Scottish version, an ex-Ravenscraig worker. In the British version http://www2.labour.org.uk/manifesto-splash, one of the children, James, sitting reading a ‘Big Book’ when asked what ‘the big idea’ is responds, ‘How everyone deserves a good education with more good schools run by the best headteachers with parents having a greater say’, whereas in the Scots version http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/, James responds ‘the best start in life, apprenticeships, training or jobs’.

This brings us to the philosophical difference between the British and Scottish Labour parties and the mantra of ‘choice’. For the entire decade of devolution the Scottish party has emphasised a different road of public services, emphasising partnership, equity and an aversion to marketisation.

However, it is often the same people who are pointing in contradictory directions, showing the pitfalls of thinking about this in too binary and simple a way. Thus, Jim Murphy, Scottish Secretary of State, and Iain Gray, leader of the Scottish Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament, launched the Scottish manifesto with its lack of Blairite reformist zeal on public services, yet across the rest of the UK Murphy, is signed up to the next stage of Blairite management gobbledy-gook.

What this highlights is that the ‘choice’ v. ‘partnership’ dichotomy has become a useful way of groupthink for Scottish Labour, promising one set of values for the Scottish election, while buying into another set for a British agenda. Part of this is I think the different ‘public’ and ‘private’ languages which most Scottish Labour politicians talk: when they are in public, using a broadly traditional agenda of public services, but in private, they will admit that all sorts of issues about public services such as what you do with ‘bad teachers’ or how Labour stands up to the main teacher’s union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

Scottish Westminster elections are increasingly complex moments with distinctions blurred between Scottish and British issues. We know from the Scottish Election Surveys that Scottish Parliament elections are viewed as being more shaped by Scottish than British issues (56% to 29% in 2007), than Westminster elections are by British issues (43% to 32% in 2005) (2). This is in part because the whole host of devolved powers, education, health, local government and more, are seen by most voters as more immediate and directly affecting them.

This is a bit of a fuzzy, mixed up battlefield as I explore tonight on BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Scotland at Ten’ and also earlier in the day looking at how we talk about health post-devolution (3).

Voters in Scotland and Wales increasingly have a complex labyrinth to navigate working out whether an issue is Scottish/Welsh or British. Moreover, the wider democratic deficit in the entire process is actually England, for the supposed British Labour manifesto is in fact in many respects an English manifesto, with many of its proposals not travelling north to Scotland or west to Wales. However, it is an implicit English agenda, rather than an ashamedly explicit one, lacking the straightforwardness of being labelled as ‘English’ and lacking any sense of aiding and nurturing the development of an English voice and democratic space.

Yet that is what we should see the British Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos as – namely, as primarily, English documents. It would make a start if they began talking, thinking and acting in such a language.

The British Labour manifesto and its Scottish equivalent are strange documents in many respects, trying to catch up and reflect these unsettling times that we are living through, but mostly are defensive documents attempting to hold the line.

There is little to nothing here on corporate governance, bankers’ anti-social behaviour, CEO pay, or the wider dynamics of inequality. Labour are still happy to hanker after a more effective way of enacting anti-social behaviour orders, leaving CEO pay as an issue to be left to David Cameron making tokenistic sounds on public sector pay.

In short, ‘A Future Fair For All’ provides the closing credits to an age of triumphialism, certainty and excess, where social democracy compromised and diminished itself by colluding with globalisation and the forces of the new establishment both here and globally. It is a document unsure of its tone, voice or direction, and what story it tells about Labour’s near past, let alone its near future.

Notes

1. George Eaton, ‘Labour’s manifesto cover or is it a communist poster?’, New Statesman, April 12th 2010,  http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2010/04/labour-manifesto-team-chairman

2. John Curtice et al, Revolution or Evolution: The 2007 Scottish Election, Edinburgh University Press 2009.

3. BBC Scotland, ‘Scotland at Ten’, April 12th 2010; BBC Scotland News, April 12th 2010.