Neil Faulkner writes:
Note to self: when it comes to the Labour Party, expect the unexpected. Like everyone else, I was astonished when Corbyn first surged to victory in the Labour leadership election back in September 2015. I must confess to further astonishment at the leaked Labour election manifesto.
Few of us are privy to the Byzantine manoeuvres that take place in the inner recesses of the Labour Party machine. I guess that makes the art of prediction in relation to this strange and complex political hybrid highly accident-prone.
I was pretty certain the manifesto would be a damp squib. Locked in an embrace of death with the unreconstructed New Labour Right for the best part of two years, Corbyn was looking tired and ground-down, his small coterie of colleagues increasingly beleaguered, his supporters in the constituency parties demoralised and drifting. The balloon seemed to be slowly and sadly deflating.
Then Theresa May calls a general election and it’s as if we are back in a third-round Labour leadership election. Jeremy looks fresh, invigorated, eager to get out on the campaign trail and punch out the message. He has the manner of a man who has just broken out of prison – which, I guess, in a sense, he has. Suddenly he is addressing mass rallies again, among his own people, talking the language of radical change to a working-class audience that has been under the cosh of neoliberal austerity for a decade.
Then comes the leak. Now that was pretty nifty. You draft Labour’s most radical election manifesto since 1983 and then immediately leak it to the press before the New Labour spivs can eviscerate it in the committee room.
We have to assume it was the Left that leaked it – if the Right did, it has certainly backfired. They seem to be furious that they have been presented with a fait accompli. Again, I got this wrong. I assumed that most of them would stay mum during the election, try and save their seats, curry favour with their CLPs by appearing ‘loyal’, and then go for the kill once Corbyn had been defeated. Well, that may be true of some, but many are now openly attacking the leadership in the midst of a general election campaign.
The Welsh Labour Party has said it will launch its own manifesto. Many Labour MPs have said they will not refer to nationalisation in their campaign literature. Frank Field has published his own set of ‘ten personal pledges’, Ben Bradshaw has promised ‘my own Exeter manifesto’, and other right-wingers have lined up to describe their own party’s manifesto as ‘childish’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘an expensive wish-list’, and ‘a ten-year-old’s letter to Santa Claus’.
So what are we to make of it all? Corbyn and his allies have pulled a fast one on the Labour Right and given themselves a much better chance of narrowing the gap in the polls.
The Right is not just thoroughly reactionary: it is blind and bone-headed. They appear to be quite genuine in their belief that they are most likely to retain their seats by offering working-class voters precisely nothing. By saying ‘business as usual’. By being pro-market, pro-austerity, pro-privatisation, and pro-corporate. By remaining an identikit part of a corrupt, discredited, self-serving political elite. By being indistinguishable from the Tories and the Liberals.
All the evidence is to the contrary. Both commonsense and the polling evidence suggest that the main planks of the Labour manifesto are likely to be clear winners on the stump – renationalisation of rail, energy, and the post; abolition of student tuition fees; a massive programme of council-house building; hefty increases in funding for the NHS, education, and social care; repeal of the bedroom tax, reversal of cuts in disability benefits, and ending of the punitive sanctions regime; a national investment bank to channel public funds into major infrastructure projects; and everything to be paid for by increased taxes on the rich and the corporations.
I feared we would never see this. I feared a wide gap between Corbyn’s rhetoric as soon as May fired the starting gun – clear, principled, uncompromising attacks on the rich and the corporations, anger about rising social inequality, about decaying public services, about grotesque greed at the top mirrored by rising poverty and despair at the base – I feared this would not be matched by a concrete programme for change. I was wrong.
A new birth of reformism
But it’s not enough. There are shoddy compromises. On Trident: it is a disgrace that the Labour Party countenances the use of weapons of mass destruction capable of killing millions of ordinary people. On migration: it is a disgrace that Labour does not say, loud and clear, ‘refugees and migrants are welcome here’.
And there is an Achilles Heel. As the fate of the Syriza Government has taught us – those who are willing to learn – in the neoliberal era, which is defined by financialisation and speculation, any government that does not nationalise the banks, repudiate the debt, and put money creation under public control cannot break the corporate shackles and seize the levers of economic power.
Nonetheless, no-one should be in any doubt that Labour’s manifesto represents a radical break with 35 years of unchallenged neoliberalism. That is why the Labour Right is seething. That is why The Daily Mail is frothing. That is why the BBC – even Laura Kuenssberg – is suddenly forced to discuss policy instead of trivia. That is why May – attacked on corporate greed, on NHS underfunding, on rising poverty, on unaffordable housing – can suddenly look weak and shifty instead of ‘strong and stable’.
The cosy consensus of the neoliberal political and corporate elite has been shattered by the Corbyn Cuckoo. They have spent two years rubbishing the Labour Left, trying to grind to powder the insolent suggestion that an alternative to greed and poverty, to corporate power and social decay, might be possible. Then, like a jack-in-the-box with a broken lid, up it pops clutching a Keynesian-reformist programme that the British ruling class and its political flunkies thought they had killed off in the 1980s.
‘Back to the 1970s’ rages The Daily Mail. Absolutely. Because the Tories, their New Labour echoes, and their media amplifiers want to take us back much further, to the 1930s, perhaps even to the 1870s, to an age before trade unions, social democracy, and the welfare state.
Labour may not win. It faces the bitter hostility of the entire British Establishment – the 1%, the corporations, the profiteers, the Tories, the Liberals, New Labour, the tabloids, the BBC – but by offering an alternative, it is communicating a message of hope, injecting real politics into the election, forcing a debate about the way in which the rich are pissing on the rest of us.
The stakes in the election are now much higher. A Labour victory is now much more worth fighting for. And even if we still lose, the bigger our vote, the stronger our movement will be for the battles to come.
Neil Faulkner is the author of A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (LBC/Pluto Press) and Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right (Public Reading Rooms).
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Saturday 14 April, 11.30 -14.00
March For the NHS – Leeds
March to fund the NHS. Oppose cuts, privatisation and outsourcing the NHS for profit.
See Facebook page
Saturday 12th May
National TUC demo
A New Deal for Working People
London. Assemble 11am. Full details here
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.