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Does Labour’s ‘Manifesto of Hope’ Live up to Expectations? Novara’s Verdict

by Novara Reporters

In 2017 Labour’s leaked manifesto galvanised even wavering supporters across the country with a radical and optimistic agenda that far exceeded what most had hoped for. It fuelled an unprecedented campaign to close what started as a gap of more than 20 points between the two largest parties, ultimately taking away Theresa May’s majority. Add to this precedent the exciting and radical new policies – including a Green New Deal to decarbonise the economy by 2030 and a motion to expand free movement – passed at Labour conference in September, and expectations this year are high. 

Does the document, released this morning, live up to these expectations? Novara Media editors Aaron Bastani and James Butler, and contributors Eleanor Penny and Grace Blakeley weigh in. 

Eleanor Penny, Writer and Regular Contributor to Novara Media

The Labour manifesto is a brick through the Overton window, smashing decades of staid neoliberal consensus which preaches that there is no alternative to capitalism, no alternative politics other than shuffling managerialism and petty bureaucracy to manage and placate the whims of the free market. Critical to this are promises of huge – and importantly, costed – investment to restore the public sphere and break the stranglehold of the market over people’s everyday lives. Collective, public control of the basic facets of life like energy, water and housing aren’t just possible – they are necessary.

People scolding the party for not being ‘realistic’ are starting to look desperate and fatally out of touch. Most exciting is the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, promising a windfall tax on polluters to fund a transition to a sustainable economy. Its timeframe isn’t as ambitious as some have wanted, but it’s still undoubtedly radical, putting rocket boosters under efforts to tackle the climate crisis. And just in time; the window for effective action narrows by the day.

But most vitally, this isn’t simply a package of charity handouts from a twinkly jam grandad; Jeremy Corbyn has taken aim directly at fat cat bankers, tax-tax-dodging firms, exploitative bosses. Unthinkable in the Blair era, this manifesto and its messaging takes to task those who profit from a system of mass degradation – naming an enemy, drawing battle lines. It’s underwritten by efforts to transfer not just wealth but power to ordinary people – with worker ownership initiatives, collective bargaining rights, and a shorter working week. Class politics is back, and it’s good again.

Next, the Labour party needs to expand its vision of class justice by reforming our policing system and cruel border regime – issues on which Labour movements have often skewed small-c conservative. Those issues are just as winnable as the fight for now vastly popular nationalisation programmes. And if we want to really change the world, they are just as necessary.

James Butler, Co-founder and Head of Audio at Novara Media

The 2019 manifesto goes further than 2017 in its spending and investment pledges, and has made the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ central to all of its policies. Facing up to the climate emergency, Labour is promising to end the fraudulent ‘accounting tricks’ by which governments have claimed to reduce emissions simply by offshoring them; it also promises
a one-time tax on oil and gas firms to fund a just transition for workers in those sectors. Awareness of the climate crisis runs
throughout the manifesto, touching all sectors of infrastructural investment – from zero-carbon standards on new council houses, to recognising climate crisis as a legitimate basis for those seeking asylum.

Economically, the manifesto leads on promises of structural investment in areas left starving for the last decade. Importantly, the Grey Book – the fully costed budget-like document issued along with the manifesto – recognises the multiplier effect, with investment of this kind boosting the economy as well as returns in taxation. It also promises to end a long-standing injustice: that income from wealth should be taxed at the same rates as income from work. There can be no justification for a hedge fund manager paying a lesser rate of tax than the person who cleans their office.

There are also important democratic reforms in the manifesto: Labour seeks to abolish the anachronism of the House of Lords, replacing it with a Senate of the Nations and Regions, and extend votes to 16-year-olds, as well as all UK residents. It also promises to beef up the ineffective watchdog for the revolving door between political service and lucrative industry jobs. These are long overdue reforms, and hopefully preludes to further transformation under Labour’s promised constitutional convention.

Though not all of the conference commitments on free movement have made it into the final document, it’s an improvement on 2017 – the commitment to ban recourse to public funds has been dropped, it recognises the need for family reunion, and commits to repealing the 2014 Immigration Act. There are clearly further battles within the party to win here – but it’s a step in the right direction.

There’s much more – but on a summary view, this is the first manifesto not only adequate to climate breakdown and the slow collapse of neoliberalism post-2008, but which outlines a broader vision for a just society and a plausible way to get there. Now it’s up to activists to translate it into a living document, with stories of how it will change their lives – and the lives of people they talk to on the doorstep.

Aaron Bastani, Co-founder and Contributing Editor at Novara Media

Today you’ll hear a lot of talk about how radical Labour’s new manifesto is. The party leadership will say, rightly, that it’s the most ambitious political document in living memory. The media will say, also rightly, that the numbers involved are huge with no precedent in recent history. On both counts there can be little doubt: the last time we saw change as seismic, with the state at its heart, was in the aftermath of the Second World War.

But given the challenges Britain now faces, ones acknowledged even in the most conservative of circles, this manifesto isn’t radical but appropriate. We’ve had flat wages for a decade and are now even seeing declines in life expectancy. Homelessness has increased, as has child poverty, and home ownership is at its lowest level in thirty years. We are yet to make a breakthrough in energy transition, despite climate change gaining in salience, and broadly ignore the politics of ageing. Without significant change in how we allocate resources as a society this, in the medium term, will be as socially brutal as climate change.

Labour’s offer on all of these issues isn’t farfetched but eminently practical. We must rapidly transition to renewables – something Labour recognises in its plan to have 90% of electricity coming from renewables by 2030, and to prohibit the sale of petrol vehicles that same year. Alongside 9,000 new wind farms, Britain will add enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches.

Anyone serious about decarbonisation knows that, in the short term, we’ll need nuclear power too – something the manifesto identifies from the perspective of energy security. There’s also net zero carbon food production by 2040. This will all be backed with a £250 billion ‘Green Transformation Fund’.

Elsewhere Labour promises that “no one ever again needs to face catastrophic care costs of more than £100,000 for the care they need in old age”. As the Dementia Tax of 2017 demonstrated, the politics of elderly care matter – and it is here where the inability of the Tories to deviate from neoliberal orthodoxy will show. They might talk about a ‘death tax’, but present arrangements for adult social care are a far more insidious tax on the very same people getting old.

The big picture is this: Labour is unique in offering solutions to the great challenges of our era like climate change and elderly care. By comparison the Tories and Lib Dems are stuck in the last century.

Grace Blakeley, Economic Commentator, Author and Contributor to Novara Media

Today, Labour has delivered its most radical manifesto since 1945. The party plans to build 100,000 council houses per year by 2024 alongside a tax on second homes. It will create one million green jobs, concentrated in those parts of the country most ravaged by deindustrialisation and austerity. It will reduce the working week, invest in the NHS and end universal credit. And all of it will be paid for by taxes on the very rich.

The manifesto is not ‘socialism in a box’. This is hardly surprising. Democratic socialism relies on the use of the state to shift wealth and power towards working people, not the delivery of socialism through the state itself. Many socialist thinkers throughout the decades have cast even this modest ambition as essentially impossible in the UK. The Labour Party is too conservative a force to advocate policies that would deliver the kind of radical political shift envisioned by many utopian socialists.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto doesn’t yet prove them wrong – some policies agreed at conference have been excluded or watered down. But no one could look at the document Jeremy Corbyn has presented and claim that, if implemented, it would not fundamentally shift power in the British economy from capital to labour.

Mark Fisher, who wrote in 2009 that it was now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, did not live to see it, but this manifesto deals a serious blow to the ideology of capitalist realism. For the activists up and down the country I have been visiting over the last few days, it will come as a lifeline. The apathy, disillusionment and anger they are experiencing on the doorstep is no match for this raft of transformative policies. If we can communicate them, we will win.

Published 21st November 2019

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