Labour manifesto: Corbyn has picked the right fights

Max Leak argues that the pledges in Jeremy Corbyn’s leaked Labour manifesto could play an important role in helping socialists rebuild our movement.

Jeremy Corbyn Labour

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

It’s still not clear whether it was a friend or a foe of Jeremy Corbyn who leaked the Labour Party’s draft election manifesto to the press. At this point, it doesn’t much matter. The manifesto is now a subject of public discussion and – assuming that the leaked proposals do form the basis of the final version, to be published soon – represents the most meaningful political development of the election campaign so far.

Put simply, the proposals that make up the leaked manifesto would vastly improve the lives of poor and working-class people in the United Kingdom. They would also dramatically strengthen the strategic political position of the British working class, reconstituting much of the social safety net and taking the first steps towards reversing the extensive rollback of trade union rights over recent decades. To name just a few policies, the leaked document pledges to build 100,000 affordable new homes per year; to renationalise the railways and the Royal Mail; to abolish tuition fees, and restore the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA); and to dramatically strengthen trade union rights, extending these to workers presently classified by their bosses as “self-employed” for the purpose of evading regulation.

There is no reason why this set of demands could not become the spearhead for a Labour advance in the next four weeks. Corbyn will operate between now and the election with the relative freedom of a party leader on the campaign trail – he is finally free, for a time, to speak for the party without first working around the poisonous intrigues of his parliamentary colleagues at Westminster. And, as Seb Cooke recently observed for this website, there are signs of a genuinely enthusiastic response around the country, including outside of traditional Labour Party territory. At the very least, a radical manifesto can give socialists some potent ammunition if we choose to campaign in the election on Corbyn’s behalf.

Sadly, it seems probable that any improvement in Labour’s electoral standing will be too little, too late to actually put Corbyn in Downing Street. As is widely appreciated, Labour is running 15-20% behind the Conservatives in most major opinion polls. Two years of coordinated daily onslaughts on Corbyn by the press, his Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) colleagues, and the broadly cohesive political grouping made up of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has taken its toll: Corbyn is now seen by many voters as positively dangerous in terms of “national security” and economic management.

Of course, no radical-Left leader will ever lead on these measures – the purpose of the radical Left is to transform, replace, or sometimes smash what exists, not to administrate it effectively. But the argumentative heavy lifting that might have refocussed voters’ priorities away from these familiar bourgeois shibboleths has been left undone over the last two years.

Whether or not it is enough to make a decisive difference in the General Election, the platform put forward by Corbyn could finally be the starting shot that socialists have been waiting for since September 2015, signalling the start of a real, sustained attempt to reconstitute a Left-wing, working-class politics in the United Kingdom.

The corollary of this struggle inside the Labour Party would be an uncompromising push to eject and neuter the (large) section of the PLP which will never accept Left-wing leadership – but, crucially, socialists should not see Westminster as the only theatre in which such a political struggle would be unfolding. As Pete Gillard has recently pointed out, one of the failings of both Corbyn and his supporters has been to assume a top-down process of political change, when in fact it is the engagement of ordinary people in political action which can really shift opinions and advance the causes of the Left.

The leaked manifesto could certainly be a useful defensive line in any post-election feud between Corbyn and his Labour critics. In trying to blame a Labour defeat on Corbyn’s “far-Left” politics, the leadership’s opponents would then be obliged to make a case against such policies as building new council housing, raising the minimum wage and restoring the EMA – all wildly popular and morally unassailable positions. In making that argument, the anti-Corbyn tendency would need to state more or less explicitly their view that “electability” requires the appeasement of the powerful at the expense of urgently necessary ideas which most voters view favourably.

In other words, Corbyn’s manifesto could only be deposed as Labour policy by a nakedly anti-democratic turn within the party.

The question for socialists is whether a political conflict against the Labour Right at Westminster could be matched with a push to reboot a viable working-class politics outside the parliamentary framework. The few Corbyn supporters who are literal revolutionary socialists may have reservations about the ultimate utility of a parliamentary socialist party, but the existence of such a party – or at least, a serious effort to create one – could nonetheless be a huge improvement to the political environment in which we organise our thought and activism. Defending and advancing the programme of demands that has emerged this week – even and especially if Labour proves an incapable vehicle for ever putting it into action – is entirely consistent with revolutionary convictions.

None of this is to deny that we are facing a very trying election period, with a defeat for Labour still being by far the most probable outcome. If it comes, that defeat will result at least partly from the weaknesses in Corbyn’s analysis and resolve that we have criticised ourselves as revolutionary activists over the last two years. But the belated rediscovery of some vestige of Corbyn’s original appeal does remind us of the promise which his leadership still holds for the radical Left, as a crucial point of reference that can help us make the case for an insurgent working-class politics.

 

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