For the Many: Is Labour Prepared for Power?

Feb 12th, 2018 | By Barry Winter | Category: Articles, Features, Frontpage, Lead

BARRY WINTER reviews a new volume of essays that analyse and criticise Labour’s much-heralded 2017 election manifesto, concluding that much more now needs to be done.

With a Preface by Ken Loach, an Afterword from Jon Lansman, and a dozen lively and informative essays evaluating Labour’s 2017 General Election Manifesto, For the Many does an impressive job.

In his Introduction, the editor Mike Phipps writes: “YouGov found that the manifesto was the main reason people gave for voting Labour.” He also notes that it was “written from scratch in the space of three weeks from when the election was called”.

For The Many cover

In that sense, the manifesto was quite an achievement. However, the book is not encouraging party leaders to rest on their laurels. Far from it, in their different ways most authors provide powerful critiques of the sections of that document. Rightly so, if Labour is to have a chance of winning the next election and, no less importantly, of mobilising a strong movement in its support. As Phipps recognises, “a modest lead in the opinion polls is no guarantee of future success”.

In her review of the section of the manifesto ‘Creating an Economy that Works for All’, Hilary Wainwright begins with the Corbyn leadership. She argues that  – like Bernie Sanders in the US –  his support is “a product of deep and widespread  desire for authenticity”. However, to progress this emotional support will not be sufficient. For her, this means that “the leaderships and their supporters will need to rethink their practice and go beyond simply a new kind of leadership”.

The Labour Party needs a strategy not just policy, she argues. It has to consider the balance of power, the terrain, and it needs allies. Much work has to be done to build a new, transformative left. This involves building a basis of support from radical trade union branches, the co-op movement and others. It also means encouraging workers’ participation in industrial strategy, something she sees as a failing in the manifesto.

For her, this means a future manifesto has to go beyond a return to the settlement of 1945. Instead, it must draw on initiatives that have challenged neoliberalism. That said, she acknowledges that “the new politics of the Corbyn leadership and of Momentum already indicates an alertness to these new grass roots alternatives”.

In her impressive review of the chapter ‘Towards a National Education Service’, Kiri Tunks provides a damning survey of the parlous state of our education system. She argues that education today is big business, not only nationally but globally. Successive governments have lost sight of education that empowers us all to realise our potential. She decries the current “obsession with teaching only what can be measured” because it “means we are denying our young people vital skills that they will need”. Not only is it generating growing anxiety among children but it is leading to the wasteful, high attrition rate among teachers.

A fundamental review

In her chapter on social security, Ruth Lister, points out that two-thirds of children in poverty currently have a parent in work. Given the present policies, this figure is set to increase in the coming decade.

However, she finds the manifesto commitment to raising the minimum wage was “not of itself sufficient to tackle in-work poverty”. Instead, she argues for a longer-term vision, with a more fundamental review of social security.

As she puts it: “It is understandable that the manifesto focused on reversing cuts and this will clearly be a priority for an incoming Labour government but there also needs to be some indication of a long term vision… We need a more fundamental review of social security and its functions – with the aim of providing genuine economic security for all, with minimum reliance on divisive and inefficient means testing.”

Lister acknowledges that the manifesto has been praised for offering “a radical, hopeful vision” of a more egalitariian society, delivering security and dignity to all. However, despite this positive tone, “the chapter is depressingly inadequate to the task”.

A similar critique is to be found in the chapter by Allyson Pollock on health care. As she puts it: “It’s a jumble of ideas competing and jostling for priority. Each intention is individually worthwhile but there is no coherence as a strategy and no connection to rights to health and social determinants of health. What is missing is the big picture of what is really happening to the NHS, social care and public health.”

Jeremy Gilbert welcomes the manifesto saying that without doubt it “manifests a historic turning point, because of its symbolic break with neoliberalism”. That said, he argues that the section on ‘Leading Richer Lives’ “is not the most coherent section”. For him, the different elements don’t seem to relate to each other. Not only is the title vague but he feels a “sense of randomness” about what’s been included.

For him, this chapter betrays “very little effort to think beyond the limits of established neoliberal assumptions”. However, he qualifies his critique saying that his primary purpose is not to criticise the document “but to suggest ways in which its welcome intentions could be carried forward”. He argues that it’s important to remember that “Labour’s stunning election success” was the result of the belief by many that it was indeed very radical.

What particularly concerns him is that For the Many seeks to restore centralised, social democracy of the post-war era, and warns: “We must be wary of presenting a vision to restore the power of the centralised state.”

A longer-term vision

Malia Bovattia says that for many people “it was a positive surprise to see a Labour party entering the general election with a manifesto that dedicated an entire section to ‘A More Equal Society’”.

For her, it would be to a mistake to pin all hopes “on Corbyn and his electoral victory, without a longer-term vision of the kind of social pressure from below that will be necessary to make his programme a reality”. The programme in manifesto, she argues, “captures the contradiction”.

She worries about the role of the right in the party which echoes a concern expressed by Phipps in his Introduction about the hostility of some Labour MPs to what’s happening. However, I worry about how this outlook might develop, indeed it could undermine Labour’s political prospects, if handled badly.

More positively, she declares that while Labour “still hovers between the future and the past” – which I’d suggest could apply to some on the left as well as the right – it is “our collective movements”, in workplaces, communities and streets, that will decide whether we step forwards or backwards.

Unlike the Thatcherite offensive against the post-war settlement which was decades in the making with well-funded think tanks, conferences and events, the Labour Party and leadership don’t have the luxury of time, as Christine Berry points out in her perceptive piece on the leadership’s lack of supporting institutions and think tanks.

We are confronted not only by a neoliberal society in crisis, epitomised by this chaotic Tory government, but also an emerging right-wing backlash.

This is not to signal despair. We have seen something quite startling emerging, in the way many people, notably the young, are responding positively to a progressive Labour leadership. That provides a much-needed basis on which to build a movement for change, although much more now needs to be done. It would be better if we could avoid bitter internal conflicts but we do need debates. We will need political alliances, not simple uniformity.

How these challenges can best be met requires a movement built on a culture of hope not bitterness, on honesty and integrity not deceit, and on community, fellowship and political morality.

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For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power, edited by Mike Phipps, is available from OR Press, priced £12.

See also David Connolly’s review of The Corbyn Effect.

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  1. The very last sentence of Barry’s article sums up the character of Jeremy Corbyn who is without doubt decent, kind-hearted, inclusive and different kind of Labour leader.

    Unlike so many others on Labour’s green and red Parliamentary benches, he is not self-serving, lives by example and is truly compassionate in a way that tries to pre-figure the society he would like to run as PM.

    While most walk on the other side when confronted by rough sleepers and those who are down on their luck and are vulnerable, Corbyn laid flowers and a signed card in the place where a rough sleeper was found dead, a stone’s throw from Parliament. Prior to his death, the leadership team would take this homeless man food.

    Corbyn’s card read: “This should never have happened. As a country we must stop walking by. Rest in peace. Jeremy Corbyn.”

    Whether or not Corbyn succeeds in changing the Labour Party as an agent for social change and is able to build a truly social democratic, balanced and fair society (the antithesis to neoliberalism) is questionable.

    To my mind, those who are wedded to Blairism, status quo big money and social cleansing solutions are part of the problem and cannot be part of Jeremy Corbyn’s solution.

    A broad church Labour Party that includes unrepentant neoliberals who, along with the Tories, are responsible for never-ending wars in the middle east, for privatising and monetising our NHS and public services, for zero hour contracts and Victorian working conditions, and who brief against Corbyn and the party membership at every opportunity in conjunction with their big money corporate backers, is going nowhere.

    Anyone who thinks otherwise, dream on.

  2. Ernie,
    I’m not dead set against deselection because MPs must be accountable to the party as well as the country. But I don’t think there are many MPs who support Victorian working conditions or are wedded to social cleansing. There are some who think the space for left wing policies is narrow; that the right won the argument about markets. But they remain highly critical of inequality, defend asylum seekers and refugees, and want to see more investment in public services, free at the point of use. They lack ambition and imagination, but they are not the spawn of the devil.

  3. Jonathan,

    I agree with you that it is highly unlikely that any Labour politician wants to see Victorian working conditions and few are the spawn of the devil. So by and large that is not an issue as most are good people. But silence and, worse still, complicity with big business in PFI projects and the endless privatisation and outsourcing of public services has the same result.

    And we all know, don’t we, that when Labour was in government whatever good was done was swamped by the money spent in endless wars and in weapons of mass destruction, on off-the-books PFI schemes, and in the quantitative easing which rewarded the big money crooks, tax avoiders and super-rich, and the rentiers at the expense of public services and the most vulnerable in society. Hundreds of billions wasted by Labour, Tory and Coalition governments.

    Sadly, at local government, while there are lots of good, hard-working Labour councillors, their good work in no way compensates for outsourcing programmes that deliver crap services (aka home and domiciliary care, prisons, Royal Mail, et al) and Victorian conditions of employment for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who are victims who deserve better, much better. Privatisation and outsourcing of jobs always ends in tears for redundant workers and in money grabbing riches for those in positions of power.

    The same goes for the way working class estates and redundant workers have been left to rot on sink estates while the communities they live in become drug- and crime-infested, and prisons without walls for those without the means to escape.

    And what about Labour councils throughout the UK who partner with investors and regeneration projects that lead to the social cleansing of the residents they are supposed to represent – as in Haringey where big money trumps the needs of the most vulnerable?

    How can this sort of behavour bring about social change and government for the many and not the few?

  4. Ernie : When I was more one of “Blair’s Bastards” than even Corbyn – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/revealed-blairs-bastard-mps-who-could-make-his-life-a-misery-in-no-10-1365507.html But neither of us could match Skinner.

  5. Thanks, Harry. The size of Blair’s majority in 1997 was a disaster, both for the left at the time and perhaps for Blair, who wanted an alliance with the Liberal Democrats and PR

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