Writer and Director: Daniel Draper
The Labour Party’s 1983 general election manifesto, which emphasised socialist policies, has been described as “the longest suicide note in history’’ and is regarded as a major reason why the party failed to win that election. Jeremy Corbyn, who shaped that manifesto, went on to lead the party and to develop For the Many, Not the Few, an even more extreme left-wing manifesto which secured the party better than expected results in the 2017 general election but, in 2019, led to them winning their lowest number and proportion of seats since 1935. Most significant was the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’ of safe Labour seats which is now seen as a pivotal moment in British political history.
Members of the Walton Constituency Labour Party, however, regard the manifesto, and indeed Jeremy Corbyn, as personifications of the ideals of socialism and so above criticism. Daniel Draper’s documentary Manifesto follows them from the run-up to the election, through its aftermath and enforced zoom conferences during the covid pandemic to Corbyn’s suspension from the party and the election of his successor.
The recent antics of the current Prime Minister have reinforced the perception of politicians as living in a bubble- remote from the concerns of the electorate and immune from the consequences of their actions. Manifesto is set at the other end of the scale depicting the thankless work undertaken by grass-root community activists drumming up support by way of telephone calls, knocking on doors and driving around using loudspeakers to reassure potential voters they are ‘’not the only Leftie in the village’’.
Daniel Draper deliberately avoids any attempts to glamourise the work of the activists. He takes an authentic fly-on- the -wall approach; the camerawork is rough and ready, sometimes shaky and a bit too close. The locations in which filming takes place – working men’s clubs, grim committee rooms, outside football stadiums or through rain-wet car windscreens – are miles away from the slick Westminster world of politics.
With one exception Draper avoids editorialising and allows those involved to speak for themselves. However, reasons put forward for the Labour Party’s dismal election result include that the party lost its emotional rapport with the less well-off and became perceived as no longer sharing their values and priorities on issues such as immigration. In that respect the activists come across as just as remote as the Westminster elite and intolerant of views other than their own. Brexit is mentioned only once and immigration not at all. Someone critical of the past performance of the Labour Party when in power is dismissed as being a member of the Brexit Party.
The stance is that the values of the manifesto must be pushed at all times. Even after the disastrous result there is a ‘‘told you so’’ attitude with the observation lockdown would have been easier to endure had free broadband, recklessly promised in the manifesto, been delivered. The activists show no inclination towards self-examination and the possibilities the rash promises in the manifesto might have been rejected by a sceptical public and their leader was genuinely unpopular are not considered. The attitude is worryingly like those who voted ‘remain’ in the Brexit referendum and, incapable of accepting the result, demanded a second referendum.
Daniel Draper is an activist himself and his sympathies become apparent in the sole example of editorialising. Extracts from Robert Tressell’s call-to-arms The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists are read at regular intervals while the camera runs around somewhat desolate views of Walton. It could be argued this illustrates why that constituency remained loyal to the Labour Party in the election. Sebastian Payne’s fascinating study of former ‘Red Wall’ constituencies (Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England) suggests a move from an industrial base towards residential areas from which people commute to work in other cities left the areas without the communal pride and mutual dependency which expressed itself in support for the Labour Party and so with an electorate more willing to vote for other parties. If, as the documentary suggests, such residential development has not taken place in Walton, it may explain why the electorate retain their Labour Party loyalty.
Manifesto is a sincere tribute to the often overlooked and unrewarding work of activists in political campaigning. It serves as an antidote to recent examples of smug, self-interest and outright greed displayed by Westminster politicians. The documentary, however, gives the impression members of the Labour Party remain unable to acknowledge past mistakes or to listen to dissenting voices and this inability to respond to the discontent of their core supporters may keep the party out of power even longer.
Manifesto is released in UK cinemas on 16 June.