Labour’s next manifesto: Lisa Nandy on restoring power to those who rightfully own it
We asked five Labour backbenchers to make the case for a policy they would like to see in the party’s next programme for government. Lisa Nandy argues the next Labour manifesto must offer a convincing future for towns – and pledge to restore power to those who rightfully own it.
The last general election demonstrated the power of the political manifesto. While the Conservative party’s programme for government was widely agreed to be among the worst in living memory, less attention was paid to Labour’s: a manifesto put together in a matter of weeks, that sought to explain not just what but why, wore its heart and values on its sleeve and inspired a surge in support that just a few weeks earlier would have been unthinkable.
But 2017 was also remarkable as an election that turned class politics on its head. As the academics Will Jennings and Will Brett showed, more affluent optimists turned left, while those hardest hit by years of austerity were increasingly likely to move right.
This matters to Labour. Historically we have only won when we offer hope but like Brexit before it, the general election exposed huge swathes of the country outside of the major cities where hope and optimism are in short supply and frustration is widespread.
That’s why last year we set up the Centre for Towns, to move away from the narrative about our ‘left behind’ towns and establish an agenda that matches the ambition of the millions of people who live in them. Towns are now the key electoral battleground and Labour is responding. We are rightly promising to cut business rates and tackle the parking charges that hold back our high streets, but more radical thinking is needed.
Our tax system rewards multinational online retailers and punishes smaller institutions rooted in communities. We measure success through GDP, which takes no account of social or environmental impact or the effect of inequality. We are blind to the impact of some of the most powerful companies in the world on our towns and villages. The next Labour manifesto should think bigger: global as well as local.
Our high streets are just one visible sign of the scars left by industrial decline and the decision by successive governments to concentrate investment in cities. Those choices have cost entire communities the spending power to sustain community pubs, banks and bus services and undermined our social fabric. The next Labour manifesto must offer a convincing future for those towns.
The industrial strategy that was promised in the last manifesto is central to this, but it cannot be written in Whitehall. Communities like mine know better than any national politician where our skills and ambitions lie. In Wigan, our mining history has left a legacy of engineering skills that lie scandalously untapped. If we had the power to establish our own tax incentives, air pollution targets and energy regulations in the north, we could drive investment into clean energy, so that our young people could power us through the next century just as their parents and grandparents powered us through the last.
But until decisions about infrastructure – the transport, skills and broadband that business needs to thrive – are made closer to home, this vision will never be realised. That is why political power has to move, not just from a small group of men in Whitehall to another group of men in Birmingham, Manchester or Sheffield Town Halls, but outwards, so that our towns, villages and cities can decide collectively how and when to invest.
The temptation is always to set out big projects conceived and run from Whitehall, but this closes off choices and leads to bad decisions. Given the choice, the north would never have prioritised HS2. We would have connected our great towns and cities and invested in buses which are the arteries of our local economies.
Across the country, the clamour for power is becoming louder by the day. This belief, not just in the redistribution of wealth but in an equality of power, runs like a thread through Labour’s history and must form the basis of our future. The theme and mission of the next Labour manifesto must be to restore power to those who rightfully own it.
Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan