This impressive and varied collection of voices from the left weaves this anthology assembled by Mike Phipps. For the Many …Preparing Labour for power is reviewed by Margot Lindsay.
In the book’s preface, Ken Loach points out how the last election and Labour’s manifesto became a source of hope for the left, as the leadership that inspired enthusiasm and belief. For the first time in living memory, perhaps in the history of the party, the Labour leadership supported workers in struggle. Railway workers, steel workers, junior doctors, teaching assistants – all have had messages of solidarity from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
The manifesto marks the change in the party. Where Blair’s slogan was “Labour means business”, which it was soon realised, meant big business, Corbyn borrows from Shelley: “Ye are many, they are few”. Public ownership is back on the agenda. Railways, Royal Mail, the utilities and energy supply would be wholly or partly re-nationalised. The NHS would start removing private contractors; everyone would be directly employed. We would once again build council homes to deal with the housing crisis that has been tolerated by both Tory and Labour governments. The market is rejected as a universal panacea:
Manifesto proposals reflect the need to live together with dignity, respecting our common humanity and showing solidarity with others at home and abroad. A foreign policy “guided by the values of peace, universal rights and international law” would shine like a good deed in a naughty world. It would fundamentally change our relationship with states with a record of oppression and illegality. The arms industry would suffer the consequences, as would trade, cultural and sporting links with countries whose human rights we currently turn a blind eye.
The promise to end fracking shows commitment to the environment, rejecting the use of fossil fuels and showing concern for our local landscape. Ending ‘punitive’ social security sanctions and work capability assessments reflects our revulsion at this government’s bureaucratic cruelty to the most vulnerable. The Tories have used hunger as a weapon and forced hundreds of thousands to use food banks while Labour’s manifesto shows a determination to end that. The same values are evident in relation to education: “a move towards cradle-to-grave learning, free at the point of use” so that all may reach their full potential.
Labour will not be able to implement this manifesto without the whole-hearted commitment of its MP’s, councillors and the party machine. Attacks from outside on a Labour government with this agenda will be ruthless. That means we need a change in all those places Without this it is difficult to see how the programme can be put into practice.
In his introduction, Mike Phipps, focuses on Corbyn’s refusal to continue New Labour themes of demonising benefit claimants which ended the artificial division between the deserving and undeserving poor, which Labour had previously perpetuated. Corbyn’s successful leadership bid in 2015 was partly the result of the abject failure of most Labour MP’s to vote against Tory benefits cuts. Corbyn’s principled position on this was reflected in his campaign, which exposed the nonsense talked about ‘unworthy’ benefit recipients, by highlighting how those in work depend on benefits.
Labour’s proposed repeal of the dozen or more Conservative legal instruments designed to restrict and criminalise trade union activity also needs to be accompanied by a trade union education programme delivered through schools, colleges, Labour and Momentum media and trade unions to encourage and normal union organising as common sense.
I’ll just comment now on a few of what I considered the most significant chapters in the book.
Urban geographer Stuart Hodkinson notes that in his speech to 2017 Labour Party Conference, Corbyn most detailed proposals were over housing, promising that a Labour government would ensure tenants on estates being redeveloped would be allowed to return to them once the work was complete. Councils would also have to win ballots of residents before embarking on regeneration projects. Unused land held by developers but would be taxed. Councils will have new powers to build, prioritising brownfield sites, but also beginning a new generation of New Towns. Labour will insulate more homes, consult on minimum space standards, ensure that local plans address the need for older people’s housing and keep the Land Registry in public hands. The Bedroom Tax will be scrapped and the right to buy policy suspended to protect affordable homes. There will be a national plan to end rough sleeping and safeguard homeless hostels and other supported housing.
Corbyn has described the “chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower” as a monument to a failed economic and housing system in Britain as he set out Labour plans for city-wide rent controls and a crackdown on gentrification projects. In a deliberate break from the economic policies of Blair, Corbyn promised more state intervention in housing and utilities and said he was ready to increase taxes on big business. The party will look at models of rent control in cities across the world given that the property market is “dysfunctional”. Labour sources said Corbyn’s vision was not about dismantling capitalism, but about rebalancing the economy with more state involvement.
The commitment to maintain the Help to Buy programme until at least 2027 reconfirms the disastrous long-term cross-party consensus on subsidising home ownership in ways that boost demand without increasing supply, and artificially inflate house prices while doing little to increase affordability. (p.112) Stronger emphasis on council housing is needed as the Labour Party needs to move away from the emphasis on home ownership, and the use of euphemisms of “affordable” and “Right to buy”. What is very commendable in this book is: “Labour will remove restrictions on councils building homes and start a major council house building programme.(p.102)
In her chapter on health, health policy expert and campaigner Allyson Pollock argues that the next Labour government will reverse privatisation of our NHS and return our health service into expert public control, Labour will repeal the health and Social Care Act that puts profits before patients, and make the NHS the preferred provider.
Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STP’s) and Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs) have become the key mechanism for privatising clinical services and for opening the door not only to charging but to health insurance aka the US system. The Tories are pushing through these new organisational forms and contracts at breakneck speed under the parliamentary radar and without public knowledge and consent, in order to tie the hands of future governments. Labour will introduce a new Office for Budget Responsibility for Health to oversee health spending and scrutinise how it is spent.
Diane Abbott, the then shadow health secretary, stated at 2016 labour party conference: “Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party will be committed to halting and reversing the tide of privatisation and marketing of the NHS. Labour in government will repeal the Health and Social Care Act. This means returning our NHS to what it was originally conceived as a publicly owned, publicly funded, publicly accountable service as outlined in the HHS Reinstatement Bill.”
Pledging to renationalise privatised companies, Jeremy Corbyn said in The Guardian: “Labour is looking not just to repair the damage done by austerity but to transform our economy with a new and dynamic role for the public sector particularly where the private sector has evidently failed… [We] are committed to take back our utilities into public ownership.” Corbyn also challenged the media in the speech, saying they were “under instruction from their tax-exile owners to destroy the Labour party”. He said one paper had devoted 14-pages to attacking Labour, and the party’s vote had gone up by 14 points. “Never have so many trees died in vain.”
One important omission in the book is in Chapter 10 “Extending Democracy” by David Beetham. While the chapter opens with a reference to “extending democracy” there is no explanation of the undemocratic voting system which currently exists. There is acknowledgment that the “first-past-the-post system has serious defects”. We need electoral reform so that every vote counts and Parliament represents public opinion. The way we elect Westminster’s MPs has a real impact on life in Britain – it’s time we made sure seats matched votes.
My conclusion is to encourage all left leaning people to buy this excellent book which addresses many of the issues which concern us. It is small and portable, a good read when travelling on public transport. Great material for discussions with work colleagues in the tea break. Invest in your future, read and promote this book to bring our democracy alive and becoming positively engaged.
For the Many …Preparing Labour for power, edited by Mike Phipps, OR Books, £12