GE2019: the Labour Party Election Manifesto – a radical departure

Duncan Bowie says this Labour manifesto is reassuringly clear with a credible plan for a democratic socialist Britain in the world. Let’s get behind the policies

The manifesto drafting process has always been something of a mystery to Labour Party members and the relationship of previous election manifestos to party policy as determined by conference has on occasions been somewhat distant. It is therefore something of a surprise to have a manifesto that incorporates so many of the progressive policies agreed in Brighton but which are also presented in a manner which makes them seem eminently reasonable. It is also reassuring to find that there is little in the manifesto with which I would disagree and much that I would strongly endorse which has been missing from past manifestos.

Labour wins argument on austerity

Nobody could argue this time around that all parties sound the same. While Conservatives and Lib Dems are taking up the case for more investment in the basic services of the welfare state and moving on from nearly two decades of the politics of austerity, which we must all welcome as it demonstrates that we have won the argument, Labour goes several steps further in proposing a radical change to the whole economic system, a rebalancing of the roles of the public and private sectors in favour of the former and a redistribution of wealth and income.

It is also important that the manifesto seeks to move us on from Brexit. As someone who has spent many years campaigning on housing policy, it is good to see the issue given prominence in the manifesto and at the launch. Labour should have made a commitment both to investing in council housing and regulating the private rented sector years ago. A commitment to abolishing council house sales, rather than just suspending the policy or leaving it to local authorities which was the case before 1980, is long overdue. The manifesto has recognised the importance of land not just to housing but in terms of other forms of development and has picked upon many of the proposals in the Land for the Many [pdf] report edited by George Monbiot.

Social ownership

The commitment to investment in health, education and welfare services is important as is the commitment to bringing key services back in-house and to bringing key infrastructure provision – the railways, water, and the Royal Mail – back into some form of accountable public control. The case for these structural changes is self-evident to the vast majority of the electorate given service failures and the gross profiteering by the private sector. The commitment to a national education service is important to reverse the inequities generated by the fragmentation and commercialisation of education services.

Taxation is always a difficult area, especially given the inevitable attacks on Labour investment plans as unfundable. It is good to see commitments on reversing Tory corporation tax changes and the proposal to tax capital accumulation at the same rate as income – there is actually a case for a higher rate of tax on capital gains, but equalisation of rates is at least a start. A more progressive income tax is important, though it could be argued that the £80,000 a year annum personal threshold for a higher income tax rate could be somewhat low, given the mean average income in UK is under £25,000. One area that does concern me is the funding arrangements for local government. Labour does need to commit to both re-establishing a needs-based grant to local authorities and to reforming the council tax system to make it more progressive. The 2017 manifesto gave a commitment to reviewing local government finance but this review does not appear to have been completed. The manifesto is also disappointing on planning, just referring to the need for greater public engagement in the planning system. Unfortunately, public engagement does not necessarily produce the development most needed by the most disadvantaged.

The social justice agenda always seems to lose out to a very oversimplified environmental agenda, as shown by the commitment to protect the (not very) Green Belt. In the London context this absolutist position fails to consider the social consequences. The Labour Party Planning Commission’s report, in which I had some involvement, was completed but did not make it to publication before the election was called. I do sometimes wonder what is the point of all these commissions, which take so long with so little impact.

Immigration and free movement

The policy on immigration represents limited progress, though so much does depend on the outcome of Brexit. It does not go as far as some would want on free movement. The manifesto is however clear as to our objectives on rights and obligations and there is a commitment to repeal some of the worst of the current punitive restrictions. Len McCluskey’s late intervention was however unhelpful as it plays to the argument that immigration lowers the wages of indigenous workers, which clearly does not apply if you have adequate regulation of wages and employment standards.

There is another Brexit-related issue where stronger policies are needed, and that is the issue of the need for rebalancing the UK economy to get some wealth and investment into what are still in effect the “depressed” areas. We have never understood sufficiently the extent to which regional economic disparities have increased since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the fact that this boosted the Leave vote. The manifesto proposes regional banks and Labour has also proposed moving part of the Treasury to a northern city. But we need much more substantive regional economic intervention and to shift employment activity and investment away from London and the wider South East. This means centralised economic planning and powers to direct private as well as public investment. This has been undertaken by governments of different political persuasions in the 1930’s, the 1940’s and the 1960’s and needs to be reintroduced.

Brexit and binding popular vote

I have left Brexit till last intentionally. This has been a difficult issue given the widely differing views within the party across the country. While I would have preferred Labour to campaign for Remain and for all our Northern and Midlands MPs to argue that it would be the lowest-income households who would suffer most from Brexit, it is too late to base a manifesto position on this case. The manifesto does at least set out the key protections that Labour wishes to negotiate with the EU, as well as give a commitment to a binding popular vote on a renegotiated agreement. Whether we believe Labour can get a better deal, which I don’t, or that Remain would necessarily win a new popular vote, which I doubt, this is probably the best position the manifesto can adopt in the current context.

What is much more positive is the commitment to a truly internationalist foreign policy focusing on effective diplomacy, climate diplomacy, human rights and conflict prevention. Perhaps we will see the return of a more ethical foreign policy. However, the policy on defence and security does not really match up with this approach. Surely we could have dropped the Trident commitment by now, as so many military experts argue it is not really relevant and diverts resources from more effective defence and security measures. Of course, building nuclear submarines creates jobs, but why are we no longer advocating, as we did in the 1970’s, diversification of the defence industries into more beneficial products. Perhaps we could build solar panels instead!

In a short article it is not possible to comment on the wide range of other commitments in the manifesto – on climate change mitigation, energy policy, employment rights, on the minimum wage and many other important policy proposals. Overall the manifesto has a progressive stance based on a reasoned argument behind which we should all unite. We need to move on from the media-driven focus on whether voters dislike Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson the most, to focus on the fundamental difference between the Labour platform and that of the Conservatives. It is not so much the issue of getting behind the leader but getting behind the policies and the individual candidates in our constituencies.

Duncan Bowie

Duncan Bowie was a senior lecturer at University of Westminster. His most recent books are Radical Solutions to the Housing Supply Crisis (Policy Press) and a history of the Left in Oxford. He is Chartist Reviews Editor.