The lead-up to Labour conference 2021 – the first proper Labour conference since Jeremy Corbyn stood down as leader in 2020 – is a good time to reflect upon the state of the UK left, what it gained during Corbyn’s time as Labour leader, what it’s lost since, and how it might rebuild for the future.
The obvious place to begin is the 2019 Labour manifesto, which remains a considerable achievement. The manifesto was a democratic, realistic, and left-wing policy platform worked out with help from civil servants. Its very existence repudiates the insistence by right-wing ideologues in the mainstream media and cross-party political elite that socialism isn’t practical and can’t work in the UK. It also provides a programme around which the UK left, historically fragmented and factional, can unify.
The 2019 manifesto
The UK’s domineering political right wing – inside and outside the Labour Party – needs to discredit Corbyn and his achievements if they are to legitimise their conformity with the fundamentally unjust status quo. They hope that some of the mud flung at the man will stick to the policies he popularised. Thankfully, they appear to be failing. This is largely due to the self-destructive incompetence of Keir Starmer’s “leadership” of the Labour Party. Starmer’s team has failed to craft its own narrative with which to critique government policy, leaving the 2019 Labour manifesto as the most obvious point of reference for anyone looking for an alternative way of doing politics and policy.
That said, the continuing relevance of the 2019 manifesto is also a sign of the failure by the left to forge its own narrative since Corbyn stood down. The manifesto has not yet been properly defended or further developed, despite many opportunities over the past year and a half for doing just that.
For instance, the Furlough scheme, for which Corbyn’s Labour and its trade union allies were essentially responsible, proves that it’s possible for the government to fund a form of basic income. Working alongside the 2019 manifesto’s promise of Universal Basic Services and a right to food, a form of basic income could provide permanent financial security to everyone in the UK.
As early as March 2020, the New Economics Foundation outlined the merits of a Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG) of £221 for everyone who needs it. Meanwhile other think tanks like the Resolution Foundation argued for measures to reform the existing benefits system, such as uplifting Universal Credit, as a readily available way to improve social security.
These two policy proposals are compatible. A guaranteed minimum income for all who need it, rolled out via the system established for Universal Credit, would be an effective and sustainable replacement to the furlough scheme. It would ensure real security for most people, and economic confidence and growth for the UK economy.
However, although John McDonnell initially made the argument for a Minimum Income Guarantee last year, the argument for this policy has not been consistently made by a left which has, until the last few weeks, seemed to be in retreat and on the defensive. The policy is now rarely mentioned.
There are exceptions, such as Ian Byrne’s support for the Right to Food campaign. But mostly the left has been more preoccupied with defending important but relatively small gains than building support for a reimagined society. While the campaign to keep the £20 Universal Credit uplift is laudable – and essential – it has not been tied to a broader policy proposal, such as a form of Universal Basic Income like MIG. It therefore amounts to a defence of an already inadequate and unjust status quo and is not itself a progressive vision of the future. One that promises social justice and financial security for all, via the provision of essential services, including income, free at the point of need, which we desperately need.
As a result of this retreat, the British left, once largely united within Labour under Corbyn’s policy platform, has fragmented. Now, we’re seeing new, smaller parties emerge, such as the Breakthrough and Northern Independence parties, as well as the Workers’ Party of Great Britain, alongside the still extant TUSC and Left Unity. Thankfully, this fragmentation has not yet led to overt factional warfare on the left. Nevertheless, this remains a risk. And the best way to avoid it is to seek unity in common objectives, and a shared narrative about the future of the UK that can be emphasised to overcome relatively minor differences.
There’s no better common objective than making the policy platform of Labour’s 2019 manifesto – or preferably a further developed version of it – a reality. Electoral competition may be a natural point of division, but a broadly shared cross-party vision, of what a more socially just UK would look like in practice, is still the best way to create a sense of shared purpose.
Thankfully, the Labour left has regained some of its confidence. The call to shift the debate over social care funding onto the broader issue of taxing wealth is encouraging. But the fight isn’t just about the Labour Party. The wider left must take its campaigns to local councils across the country, urging them to adopt motions supporting strengthened versions of the policies of 2019. By doing this, we can build a cross party social and political consensus for the policies that are essential if we, the ordinary people of the UK, are to prosper in the future.
Last year, as part of a campaign led by the COSMOS Peoples’ Org, I worked to defend and develop the policies of the Corbyn manifesto of 2019. These efforts are the foundation of a series of exclusive articles for The Canary, which will explain why we need the policies of the 2019 Corbyn manifesto more than ever and consider how they can be made even better.
The COSMOS has chosen to highlight ten policies which are essential to providing security and a decent life for ordinary people:
- An end to, and reversal of, NHS privatisation.
- A publicly owned and national social care service.
- A guaranteed minimum income for everyone out of work.
- A fair tax system, which brings taxation of wealth into line with that of income.
- Millions more high-quality council houses for those who need them.
- Caps on private sector rents with security of tenure.
- A national education service providing free, lifelong learning.
- A green industrial revolution to provide high quality jobs.
- Public ownership of utilities.
- Secure employment for all.
The next article will discuss the need to end and reverse the trend of asset-stripping and privatising the NHS. This trend has been let loose since the passing of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, and it threatens to further increase following upcoming government legislation.
Featured image via YouTube – Guardian
- See what The COSMOS does here.
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