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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Future Is Ours

The British Labour Party envisions an inspiring new era.

Jeremy Corbyn has a fondness for revolutionary poets. Back in 2017, during the last General Election campaign in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party leader turned a single line from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy into a resonant call for mobilization: “For the many, not the few.” 

This slogan, paired with an adventurous party manifesto that laid out dozens of clear promises (and how to pay for them), saw Labour rise from very low water, fighting back from a 20-point deficit to force a hung parliament on the uncommonly boring former Prime Minister Theresa May. By denying the governing Conservative Party a majority, Corbyn’s Labour cleared the path for an unprecedented string of parliamentary defeats for her successor, the spittle-flecked, peroxide-topped charlatan Boris Johnson. 

It was fitting, then, that amidst a new General Election (set for December 12), Jeremy Corbyn should call again on another poet to launch a new manifesto—the most radical political platform in a generation, perhaps even since the postwar Labour government of 1945. To accompany his promise of “wealth and power” and a “new era of social justice” Corbyn quoted the Chilean hero Pablo Neruda: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.”

Britain has been gripped by the bitter winter of austerity since 2010, and more recently the needless drudgery of Brexit. The manifesto has injected brio into an election that seemed to present the unappealing prospect of choosing between personalities: Johnson (blustering, buffoonish, a liar) and Corbyn (stilted, hesitant, quaint). While Neruda’s line does not have the same rousing quality and eminent repeatability of Shelley, that quote and this manifesto signal an emergence. A coming in from the cold. The warmth of a brighter future.

The manifesto—titled “It’s Time for Real Change”—is firstly a pledge to demolish the imposing monolith of Tory austerity. It envisions an enormous widening of state expenditure, arresting the plunder of social security since the Great Recession. 

Its banner policies are simple, digestible, appealing: a living wage of £10 ($12 USD) per hour, tax raises for anyone earning more than £80,000 ($100,000 USD), free fiber broadband, and total nationalization of all postal services, energy supply, water, and rail lines (on which Britain depends). Harking back to a storied history, Labour has renewed its pledge of 1945 to “proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation”—in short, 1 million new affordable homes built over a decade, supported by rent caps for tenants and the expansion of renters’ unions. 

There is perhaps no other institution more cherished and venerated in the United Kingdom than the National Health Service, hauled into place against all odds by the ’45 Labour government. Yet the NHS has suffered under a spree of privatization, while the patients it serves wait hours for over-stressed, under-staffed nurses and doctors. In chilly months on this archipelago, services often collapse. Corbyn has promised £3.2 billion more in NHS spending than any other party—throwing in the elegant and obvious kicker of free hospital parking. 

A touch more ambivalent is a touted “right to food.” Nobody yet knows what this might imply, but the pledge to end the need for food banks within three years addresses one of the grimmest statistics of the austerity period: that one in 50 households in the U.K. had to resort to food parcels within the last two years. The vast majority of these families in poverty (about 9 million in 14.3 million) have one adult in work, for which 30 hours of free preschool (pre-K) and free meals for primary school children will be a vital salve. 

In promising these basic provisions, Corbyn’s party have identified clear enemies. Not just the Conservatives, but their allies: the unassailably wealthy, immensely powerful beneficiaries of inequality, a triumvirate of “tax dodgers, the bad bosses and the big polluters.” To raise a bulwark against the ultra-rich, Corbyn pledges “the biggest extension of workers’ rights in history.” 10 percent of the largest companies would be collectively owned by employees. One-third of board seats could be reserved for workers, with specific control over executive pay. This is complemented by a commitment to equal pay and to union rights: workplace ballots, rights of entry to workplace organizing, bans on union-busting and blacklisting, and repeal of the 2016 Trade Union Act.

Second, the manifesto comes with an implicit understanding that no political platform is worth the paper it is written on without cures for catastrophic climate change at its heart. Fundamental to Labour’s blueprint (first in the table of contents and mentioned throughout) is the promise of a Green New Deal as the solution not only to the extinction crisis, but the immediate deprivation of de-industrialization. 

Funded by a windfall tax on the most egregious defilers of the environment, Labour proposes to build at least 9,000 new wind turbines and (in the occasionally parochial terminology of British politics) “enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football [soccer] pitches.” The goal is to see Britain on the way to decarbonization by 2030. To supplement the transition, a so-called “green transformation fund” to the tune of £250 billion. As global warming carries with it a certain degree of inevitability, the party would mandate the Office for Budget Responsibility (a costings department of the U.K. Treasury) to map out the price to the economy (and to people’s lives) of not acting against the coming climate apocalypse. 

The manifesto isn’t the product of the Labour leadership alone, nor even the party’s grumbly parliamentary faction. In fact, it is a compromise between the membership (especially the activist group Momentum) and the traditional union wing. Bitter disappointment is already evident from the hard left of the party, which passed resolutions at the Labour conference in September advocating the total abolition of private schools (cloistered forcing-houses for the British elite), greater expansions in trans rights, freedom of movement, and total decarbonization by 2030.

And there are gaps in the platform, flinches of instinct that lack the rigorous detail displayed in shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s fully costed “grey book.” The openly cruel Universal Credit scheme could be scrapped with no word yet on what could replace it. Figures for a pilot Universal Basic Income are absent. And McDonnell’s idea of a four-day working week is still not much more than that: an idea.

But these deficiencies have not stopped Boris Johnson and his boosters in wonk-world and the press from flagrantly lying. The Tory campaign mashed together a tacky website claiming that the average household would be burdened with £2,400 ($3,080 USD) a year in extra taxes—ignoring that a significant portion of Labour spending would instead be drawn from a rise in corporation tax (a lift of 19 percent to 26 percent, higher than the U.S. but lower than Japan). And the Financial Times—that bastion of tedious neoliberal orthodoxy—even whined that having a nationalized postal service (as in the U.S.) would “shatter confidence.” As if the confidence of working people was not already shattered.

But this is nothing when contrasted with the opinion of the allegedly independent watchdog Institute for Fiscal Studies. “The truth is of course,” its director Paul Johnson warned with suave arrogance, “that in the end corporation tax is paid by workers, customers or shareholders.” In other words, to frustrate the Labour project, companies ought to “pass on” the tax rise “through lower wages” and “higher prices.” It is remarkably trite for the IFS and the Tories to claim that Labour plans are “not credible” or “reckless” when they have inflicted a decade of impoverishment, immiseration, and indignity on the vast majority of the country. Any argument for fiscal prudence loses its patina of common sense when one stands in line at a food bank.

But these threats betray what the right really fear: that a Labour government would shift power from the city to the people. It’s not that Labour are statists or that the manifesto promises a big, centralized government. In fact, one of the key points in the Labour agenda is decentralization. The manifesto promises to give greater democracy and decision-making power back to local councils throughout England, especially in the neglected north of the country. These regions have for decades been run as distant colonies to the London metropole, their operating budgets cut to nought, their pleas for respect and dignity unheard in Westminster. (Just how Jeremy Corbyn will square the circle of demands for Scottish independence is another matter entirely).

Far more than these commitments, however, Labour’s manifesto is a retort to the pessimism of self-interest, a cry against pitiful moans of bad hope and bad faith, and a warning against those who would place too much trust in “common sense”—in capitalist realism. Laid against despair and alienation, the Labour manifesto —imperfect and abridged though it may be—is an assertion that it is possible, and realistic, to dream.

And contexts may be distinct, but Labour’s radicalism is a trans-Atlantic suggestion, a prompt to the trepidatious recalcitrance of a Democratic Party in thrall to “consensus” and “bipartisanship,” fearful of alienating the mythical “swing voter.” Here, in this glossy pamphlet, is a powerful argument that partisanship is a useful ploy. Enemies should be marked and attacked, but only if that attack is welded to an uplifting alternative view of the future.

A decade of Tory governments has been waging class warfare on Britain’s poorest. If Labour’s 2017 manifesto was the first cautious shot, then this new platform is the follow-up salvo in a counteroffensive long overdue. 

Read the full manifesto here.

More In: U.K. Politics

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