In 2017, a member of Labour’s inner circle anonymously leaked a draft copy of the party’s election manifesto to the press. The motive was clear: to embarrass the leadership, in the hope that the more radical aspects would be shelved after much public mockery, and the policies contained therein torn asunder by voters, journalists, and experts alike. In 1983, Michael Foot’s Labour Party put forward a manifesto based solidly on socialist principles, which the MP Gerald Kaufman described as “the longest suicide note in history” – an epithet that haunted the left of the party for decades. The leak clearly was designed to invoke that memory, to bully Jeremy Corbyn’s team into quashing anything that might be construed as remotely Marxist and cling to more staid, centrist policies.
And yet . . . the manifesto was immensely popular. In the end, most commentators and activists cast the leak as the turning point in that election: the moment Labour shifted from being miles behind in the polls to becoming a formidable foe that was to eat into the Conservative lead and ultimately cost Theresa May her majority.
A lot was riding on the launch of this year’s manifesto. The Liberal Democrats had released their uninspiring manifesto the day before, with no policies making any particular impact; the party continues to dip in the polls as it becomes clear this election is a two-party race. Labour needed to remain as radical as they revealed themselves to be in 2017, but also present a blueprint for a completely different society that promised to undo the harm a decade of austerity has unleashed upon the country. Some policies were pre-trailed: the immensely popular plan to nationalise fiber broadband and give every home free, high-speed internet access. Renationalising rail, mail and utilities. Mass investment in the public services that have been decimated by central government funding cuts.
But there was far more: a promise to reverse the anti-trade union laws the Tories have passed to prevent workers fighting for better pay and conditions, with the promise to outlaw zero-hour contracts, raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour, and extend maternity and paternity leave. These are broad and far-reaching promises, giving workers the same rights whether they’re self-employed, new to a workplace or working part-time. Nestled within the larger plans are notionally smaller commitments that can appear inconsequential, but have the potential to genuinely improve people’s lives individually.
Having the same rights as people on permanent contracts, who’ve been in the job far longer than you, is important – but Labour’s promise to institute statutory leave for bereavement and miscarriage is a fundamentally decent strand of policy that has the potential to bolster the emotional well-being of individuals when they are at their most vulnerable. Greater protections for terminally ill people and women experiencing menopause are further examples of the “pragmatic utopianism” Labour have made a hallmark of their policy-making. When my grandmother was diagnosed with advanced cancer, she found that not only did her employer – the supermarket Asda, owned by Walmart – offer her almost no sick pay while she was undergoing a lengthy stretch of chemotherapy, but the state provided little by way of benefits, threatening her ability to pay her rent and bills. Upon my father’s death, I was told that due to understaffing I could take a day off for his funeral but no more than that.
The United Kingdom’s entire infrastructure, too, will alter if Labour win and deliver the manifesto. Climate catastrophe is endangering the globe, and the party has sketched out a plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, creating a million jobs in the regions and towns that need employment the most, aiming to make the economy carbon neutral by 2030. The environmental policy is radical and hugely ambitious, and ushers in the promise that not only can we avert the flooding that blighted the first few weeks of campaigning, but that in doing so Britain can bring back genuinely good jobs to regions that collapsed economically after “Thatcherism on steroids” killed mining, steelworks and shipbuilding jobs in working-class communities that had the temerity not to vote Conservative.
The Tories constantly argue Corbyn and McDonnell want to “take Britain back to the 1970s” – a tired cliche that treats the specter of strong trade unions and workers’ power as a bogeyman to be feared. But for older potential Labour voters, Boris Johnson will only bring back Thatcherism, and for the young, they weren’t even alive then and have only known a failing post-crash capitalism limping on, that has loaded them with debt and made both work and housing utterly precarious. So Labour plan to go back to the 1960s: promising to build 100 000 council homes and 50 000 social housing units a year – a number not seen since 1967. Rents would be linked to local earnings and genuinely affordable, taking millions off waiting lists that have remained stagnant as the Conservatives have failed to build the homes they have promised. On the BBC after the manifesto launch, Tory minister Liz Truss was asked how many of the promised “starter homes” the party had managed to build in the previous year. Truss obfuscated, claiming she wasn’t entirely on top of the figure so could not tell the presenter, Andrew Neil, off the top of her head. It was relatively easy to memorise, Neil pointed out: that figure was zero.
On day one of a Corbyn government, Labour have promised to scrap the deeply punitive Department of Work and Pensions, replacing the DWP with a Department for Social Security. Under the Conservatives, access to welfare has been made into a deliberately cruel, labyrinthine system, with recipients “sanctioned” for spurious reasons and left without money for food, rent and heating, reliant on food banks while teachers and doctors warn that children are showing signs of rickets and malnutrition, and people are dying after being denied disability benefits and being declared “fit for work”. The inherent dignity of life is spelled out clearly in the manifesto, a point of supreme importance to people who have been scapegoated and made to suffer for decades under New Labour and the Conservatives. “The Tories’ rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’,” it notes, “has whipped up hatred of disabled people, with disability hate crime skyrocketing, up 37% in the last year alone. Labour will never demonise disabled people or the unemployed.” This isn’t mere lip service, but a genuinely transformative statement based on the belief that all people should be treated equally, regardless of their economic or social position. The party aims to eradicate poverty and homelessness, to stop children from growing up poor and people sleeping on the streets in the sixth-richest economy in the world.
But the party faces an uphill struggle, despite these fair and radical ideas. Accompanying the manifesto is a document fully costing all plans: only the top 5% of earners will pay any more tax than they currently do, and corporations will be made to pay more, with tax breaks for big business shouldering the lion’s share. Far more people will see pay rises, from the minimum wage worker to the public sector workers promised a 5% pay increase after a decade of frozen earnings. And the wealthy Conservative backers have done their best to scaremonger and sow disinformation, threatening capital flight while the Conservatives repeatedly lie about how much tax voters will pay. The Tories have ignored Labour’s costings, instead fabricating Labour policies and fiscal plans, with a pliant media happy to help them spin those alarmist confabulations.
Hours after the manifesto launch, with a generally positive response from pundits and experts, the Evening Standard – the London newspaper edited by former Tory chancellor and architect of austerity George Osborne – was forced to delete part of an interview with Corbyn and issue several versions of a correction. The original article claimed “[Corbyn] suddenly turns from Mr Affable to Mr Angry, as if someone has pressed a switch. ‘There is NO anti-Semitism in the Labour Party,’ he bellows.” Labour recorded the interview, as most political press officers do, and pointed out that this simply had not taken place. The Evening Standard deleted it and issued a correction, but gave few answers as to how the claim had entered the write-up and why no basic fact-checking had occurred. And even though the article had been amended online, a million print copies had already been sent to distributors, to be handed out with the newspaper for a full week.
Opening his speech, Corbyn diagnosed the problem at length. “Labour is on your side. And there could scarcely be a clearer demonstration of that than the furious reaction of the rich and powerful. If the bankers, billionaires and the establishment thought we represented politics as usual, that we could be bought off, that nothing was really going to change – they wouldn’t attack us so ferociously. Why bother? But they know we mean what we say. They know we will deliver our plans, which is why they want to stop us being elected. They know we will go after the tax dodgers, the bad bosses and the big polluters so that everybody in our country gets a fair chance in life. That’s why they throw everything they’ve got at us. Because they’re scared of real change.”
Every day, huge crowds of Labour campaigners gather, bundled up in winter coats and gloves, to canvas and door knock around the country. They are needed, since Labour faces an uphill battle to defeat the vested interests of the wealthy in the face of a hostile media. The Right’s message is that Labour cannot afford its plans and manifesto; Labour’s message is that society can’t afford for them not to.
This article was first published by Jacobin.