After the 2017 general election, amid widespread bemusement in the mainstream over Labour’s astonishing 22-point gain in the polls in five weeks, a consensus began to emerge that Labour’s election manifesto may have been the key game-changer. In my book For the Many, a dozen experts dissected the different sections of the manifesto, overwhelmingly positive about its advances on previous offerings but equally concerned that more progress still had to be made.
So what should left activists make of the 2019 document?
Labour’s 2019 Manifesto, It’s Time for Real Change, comes in 20 pages shorter than its 2017 effort and is organised in five, rather than twelve sections. Overarching everything is the commitment to a green industrial revolution and the promise that the next Labour government will lead the fight globally against climate change. The scale of economic transformation proposed is qualitatively different to 2017, underlined by the plan to create a million new green jobs.
‘We will launch a National Transformation Fund of £400 billion and rewrite the Treasury’s investment rules to guarantee that every penny spent is compatible without climate and environmental targets,’ pledges the 2019 manifesto. £250billion of this will form part of a Green Transformation Fund dedicated to renewable and low-carbon energy and transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration – that’s new. The National Investment Bank providing £250 billion of lending for enterprise and infrastructure over 10 years was previously pledged in 2017.This year’s manifesto integrates transport into the Green Industrial Revolution, recognising the centrality of integrated, affordable public transport to tackling the climate emergency
The commitments on energy are radical – reiterating 2017’s pledge to bring the big energy companies and water back into public ownership – and innovative, as with the proposed windfall tax on oil and gas companies. As well as detailed commitments on renewables, there is a radical proposal to ‘put the UK on track for a net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s.’
The industrial strategy is also considerably more detailed than in 2017, with environmental protection fully integrated into it. A progressive trade strategy and detailed proposals to tackle Britain’s skills crisis are also included.
Transport in 2017 was tucked away in the Leading Richer Lives section of the document. This year’s manifesto integrates the issue into the Green Industrial Revolution section, recognising the centrality of integrated, affordable public transport to tackling the climate emergency. Alongside the 2017 commitment to renationalise rail, the bold new pledge here is to allow councils to take over bus networks to restore local services decimated under the Tories.
Likewise, the environment is also promoted up the agenda, with a Climate and Environment Emergency Bill establishing new standards for decarbonisation and nature recovery at its heart. A Clean Air Act – also proposed in 2017 – is pledged.
The second section of the 2019 manifesto takes a holistic approach to rebuilding public services, decimated by nearly ten years of Tory government. A £150 billion investment programme in schools, hospitals, care homes and council houses is proposed. To pay for this, those earning over £80,000 a year will pay a bit more income tax, with income tax and NI frozen for those earning less.
In health, the priority is ending privatisation. In 2017, the promise was no new outsourcing, with existing privatisation under the 2012 Health and Social Care Act left unaddressed. In 2019, Labour is proposing to repeal this act, which has seen up to a third of NHS work pushed into the private sector. Free annual dental check-ups are also new, as is the pledge to put £1.6 billion a year into the much neglected mental health sector. In social care, Labour plans a National Care Service, also proposed in 2017, that will focus on ‘the ethical delivery of care that ensures growing public sector provision and providers who meet standards of transparency, compliance and profit capping.’
The creation of a National Education Service is reiterated from 2017, as are many of the proposals on schools. The popular proposal to scrap tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants is also carried forward. This time around, however, there are additional specific commitments: a new Sure Start Plus system, 30 hours of free preschool education per week for all 2-4 year olds within five years, an end to the tax breaks enjoyed by elite private schools and a return of free schools and academies to local accountability.
Commitments on policing, justice and prisons are also more radical. Similar to health, in 2017, Labour promised merely no new prison privatisations – now we are planning to bring back in-house all Private Finance Initiative (PFI) prisons. Likewise in local government, there is a clear new commitment to bring services back in-house within the next Parliament. The emphasis on public ownership is further underlined by the new radical proposal to provide free full-fibre broadband to all by 2030 – a move John McDonnell has compared to the establishment of public libraries, re-categorising this technology as a universal public asset.
The third section of the 2019 manifesto focuses on poverty and inequality. ‘Real wages are still lower than before the financial crisis, while dividends paid to shareholders are up 85%,’ notes the document. Labour proposes to eradicate in-work poverty in its first tem, by introducing a real living wage of £10 per hour for all over 16s. Large companies will be required to give their employees a financial stake in the enterprise and one-third of boards will be reserved for elected worker-directors. Collective bargaining will be rolled out across the economy, with a ban on zero-hours contracts, unpaid internships and unnecessary restrictions on industrial action. Over a decade, the working week should reduce to 32 hours.
As well as a Minster for Employment Rights, there will be a new Department for Women and Equalities, focusing on reducing the gender pay gap within a decade. Pay-gap reporting will be extended to BAME groups and people with disabilities. It’s worth emphasising that the sheer level of detail in the proposals on work make 2017’s manifesto look rather thin in comparison. This is a manifesto that understands that strong trade unions are the key to better working lives.
Similarly, on migration: instead of 2017’s generalities, there are clear commitments to scrap the egregious 2014 Immigration Act, close the worst detention centres and seek to protect freedom of movement rights for EU citizens even if we leave the EU – a radical departure from 2017.While the 2017 manifesto was rightly criticised for placing too much emphasis on individual ownership, 2019 promises to cap rent increases, end ‘right to buy’ and give councils new powers to tax empty properties
The big headline on Social Security is the proposal to scrap Universal Credit – and for disabled people, to stop the dehumanising work capability and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments, and significantly increase Employment and Support Allowance. As first proposed in 2017, the bedroom tax will also be axed. On pensions, the priority is resolving the problem of women caught in the pensions trap. Since the manifesto was published, John McDonnell has announced £58 billion to be spent righting what he called an ‘historic injustice’ done to 3 million women who saw their pensionable age steeply increase.
On housing, Labour ‘will introduce a £1 billion Fire Safety Fund to fit sprinklers and other fire safety measures in all highrise council and housing association tower blocks.’ Additionally, the manifesto proposes to build 150,000 council and social homes a year, a scale of construction unseen for generations. While the 2017 manifesto was rightly criticised for placing too much emphasis on individual ownership, 2019 promises to cap rent increases, end ‘right to buy’ and give councils new powers to tax empty properties.
The 2019 manifesto is also a lot more detailed on constitutional issues, with votes for 16 year olds the main headline. But there are also detailed proposals on a new second legislative chamber, strengthening regional devolution and tackling the interference of vested interests in the democratic process. Labour’s proposals on resolving Brexit have been widely discussed and understood. They are a complete break with 2017 and provide us with the opportunity to get a new mandate on this critical issue.
Which brings us to the final section: A New Internationalism. This section deserves more attention than it has received in the mainstream, particularly if you feel that Tony Blair’s illegal war on Iraq encapsulated everything that was wrong about New Labour. The 2017 manifesto was already distinctive, as Glen Rangwala wrote at the time in For the Many, in breaking with the usual generalities and making concrete commitments to the Chagos Islanders, for example.
These are reiterated in 2019, but It’s Time for Real Change goes much further. It commits to put ‘human rights, international law and tackling climate change at the heart of our international policies’. It proposes a War Powers Act to prevent future prime ministers bypassing Parliament to launch military action and commits to implementing every single recommendation of the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War.
Conflict prevention and peace-building are at the heart of this section. The manifesto proposes a comprehensive reform of arms exports, suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen and to Israel in violation of Palestinian human rights.If socialists in the Party want to see Trident binned they will need to redouble their efforts at Party Conference and get some more supportive candidates selected
There is a new understanding of Britain’s historic global role, with an audit proposed into Britain’s colonial legacy. ‘We recognise the need to address historic injustices and will reset our relationships with countries in the Global South based on principles of redistribution and equality,’ says the manifesto. The Department for International Development will set its priorities according to need, rather than the UK’s commercial interests, as is currently the case. Labour will support fairer international tax rules , trade unions internationally, UN attempts to hold companies legally accountable for failing to prevent human rights abuses – a very significant idea – and stop all aid on fossil fuel production overseas.
But, undermining all this, there remains the incoherent commitment to renew the immoral, unusable, vastly expensive Trident nuclear weapons system, without a line of justification. If socialists in the Party want to see this idea binned, however, they will need to redouble their efforts at Party Conference and get some more supportive candidates selected.
Overall, Labour has never run on a stronger, more socialist and internationalist manifesto in my lifetime. Corbyn’s team are shaping the entire political agenda, redefining as public goods what for too long have been marketed as private commodities – energy, transport, broadband. No other credible party proposes anything remotely comparable to the transfer of social and economic power envisaged, as well as a sustainable economic plan that tackles the climate emergency.
The ambition of It’s Time for Real Change is breath-taking – but also under Corbyn and McDonnell, we can be sure that the leadership of the Party means to carry it through.
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