A Radical Political Manifesto for 2017

If you have not read the Labour manifesto I commend it to you. It is about tax and spend, just like all the other manifesto’s. That is what governments do, they collect taxes and pay for vital services such as defence, health and education, oh and filling the holes in the road. In relation to tax and spend the Labour manifesto differs from the Tory one in this respect only, that it is better costed!

The Labour manifesto is radical in that it has made the “hard choice” to raise taxes, what is more, it has made the “hard choice” about who is going to pay those higher taxes. Normally when you hear a government minister talking about “hard choices” you think someone is about to get a kicking. Often it is a group of citizens or workers distinguished by their weakness. But not always. The past decade has seen governments of all persuasions talking about the sacrifices that are needed by the majority in order to “balance the book”, “deal with the deficit”, “live within our means” and a range of other cliches raised to the status of policy. Certainly, the hard choices of the Cameron administration were very much about that.

The Labour manifesto addresses all the issues you might expect but critically in relation to care, education, health and industrial strategy it does not talk about how they will be improved by greater efficiency, more competition, delivering more with less or even moving the deck chairs in some complex restructuring exercise. There are some elements of this but bottom line is they say they need more money. And despite the automatic response of the government to any criticisms of its actions, that “Record amounts are being spent on [insert service of your choice]” the reality of most people’s experience is things are getting worse. Services are deteriorating. The “record amount” going into the National Health service is so effective the government does not want the figures for Health Trust deficit’s to be published before the election.

So the Labour Party manifesto is a radical document, it marks a real shift in thinking. It is not constrained by a mindless mantra that nationalisation is necessarily bad because experience seems to show that privatisation is certainly not necessarily good. What is more the risk of nationalised industries gong wrong and thus costing the tax payer a whole pile of cash is not such a powerful criticism when we discover that if private industries, say finance, go wrong they cost the taxpayer a whole pile of cash and more.

Having said all this I suspect in time the Tory manifesto will come to be seen as the most radical of all the current manifesto’s. For the past thirty to forty years there has been a growing consensus structured around a neoliberal economic model of the world which has been about lower taxes, a smaller state and weaker trade unions. The rationale for this is that such actions will lead to improved productivity and greater economic growth. The rising tide of wealth this will create will lift all boats.

Unfortunately, so many boats seem to be stuck in the mud of increasing debt, insecure employment, deteriorating services and, oh, ever more pot holes in the road. A growing sense of frustration with the mantra of jam tomorrow and ever increasing inequality today has permeated the political mantle. The pressure building in the electoral tectonics is palpable and making itself felt in what has become labelled as a popular revolt.

This popular discontent across the whole of the West cannot be dismissed as the irrational response of the “basket of deplorables”. Firstly, there is a growing academic literature raising concerns about inequality and the negative impact it is having on the economy. Whilst some of this is from academics with radical or left wing leanings, it is not all. There are voices from the right who are concerned that the market is rigged and the “invisible hand” is cuffed to the interests of the very wealthy.

To her credit it seems as if Mrs May senses all this and sees something needs to be done and the solution may not be “the market”. The manifesto talks about governing from the mainstream, and states, “We must reject the ideological templates of the socialist left and libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.” (my emphasis)

The manifesto contains a number of straws which suggest the wind is changing. There is of course a huge difference between rhetoric and reality. The rhetoric could be dismissed as a cynical attempt to attract traditional Labour voters with empty promises. After all this is the government that has promised to get immigration down to tens of thousands, eliminate the deficit and indeed reduce the national debt. It was also Mr May who made very strong comments about workers representation on boards which is being diluted as we speak.

What’s more, excitement at some more progressive comments by the leader of the Tory Party needs to be set against the reality of a  lot of very powerful people whose interests will be directly damaged by a rejection of the neoliberal orthodoxy. They are not going to be persuaded because we have a politician who sees there are genuine issues in relation to inequality and opportunity and they will fight to maintain the common sense view of the world that suits, very well, their personal interests.

The common sense view of the world which has evolved over the past thirty years sees the market as an impersonal and efficient allocator of investment, goods and wealth. A view of the world which sees people as rational utility maximisers who have perfect knowledge of the market, and exchange goods, services and labour freely. The reality of most people’s lives is not like this. The twenty first century market bares no comparison to that of the eighteenth, nineteenth or indeed most of the twentieth century. Putting that aside, the bowdlerised version of this model, which is at the core of the libertarian neoliberal view, is even further from the reality.

The Conservative manifesto seems to recognise this. It is a breach in the orthodoxy. It is a chink in the armour that has defended an increasingly indefensible world view. Whatever the outcome of the election the framework of political common sense is starting to change. At the moment it is about opening up areas of debate that have been closed for decades. It will take time for this to crystalise into clearer manifesto’s of change and change itself. However, better there is an increasingly conscious and rational debate about the way in which opportunity and wealth is managed and ditributed in our societies than the alternative.

For the avoidance of doubt, whilst I think the Tory manifesto may prove to be the most radical of the 2017 election I will be voting Labour. The radicalism of the Tory manifesto lies in its implicit recognition that some of what Jeremy Corbyn says about wealth and power is true.

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Labour Pains

Two emotions contend with each other when I think about what has been happening with the Labour party over the summer, depression and exasperation.

We live at a time when inequality is spiralling out of control, when technology is providing a challenge to employment way beyond what any self respecting luddite could have dreamt of, when the demographic time bomb has stopped ticking and started exploding and when climate change threatens the existence of the planet. Worse, in 2007/08 we had an object lesson in the frailties of neo-liberal orthodoxy when the financial markets imploded.

Given all this it is astounding the main party of opposition cannot engage the public with an effective narrative of the need for radical change. Why is this? I think there are some deep-seated issues but also some very practical matters. Starting with the latter.

Why was the Tory rewrite of history not contested after the last election? How did the massive increase in public debt become a result of Labour profligacy and not the complete failure of the banks due to a combination of derivative hubris, non-existent governance, inappropriate risk management, avarice and downright law breaking?

The tone and seriousness of the Tory position was set from the moment the Liam Byrne letter was released and used in a carefully crafted and constantly repeated barrage of misinformation. Perhaps an exhausted administration felt opposing the line given by a newly elected government might alienate voters for the future. It was a mistake, as trying to oppose a picture, which has had 5 years to sediment into the popular mind, is very difficult if not impossible.

But what are the more deep-seated issues to be addressed. This is more difficult and no doubt there will be theses written on this in due course however there is clearly a problem with the level of engagement with the core labour vote. One picture of this is that floating voters are scared of “the left” and “socialism” and in order to win and be able to do anything at all it is important to tack away from policies perceived as “extreme”.

Mr Mandelsen and other New Labour adherents talk about the need for “grown up” politics where the focus has to be on the need to win an election. It is difficult to disagree with that. On the other hand if the focus is on winning as an end in itself then it may actually become the biggest handicap to achieving success.

From a distance unfortunately it looks like a London centric cohort of Labour leaders are so busy trying to suppress the radical agenda of yesterday they have failed to notice that there is the need for what might be an even more radical agenda for today.

Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda might be caricatured as old left. It has however excited and engaged many who have been turned off by politics and politicians. It perhaps says something about their appetite for something more than the half digested and regurgitated pap that is the stuff of focus group politics.

The spectre is raised that Labour will never get elected under Mr Corbyn. This may be the case, but what makes people think that Labour can get elected with leaders offering austerity-lite? Austerity–lite is always vulnerable to the charge that it is not austerity at all and if the country is convinced that austerity is the solution why vote Labour when you can have the party that does austerity really well.

There are a series of issues which have been evolving over the past 30 years, inequality, demographics, info/techno-automation, globalisation and perhaps most significant of all climate change. The responses to all these have so far ranged between inadequate and totally inadequate. They all raise profound economic challenges that go to the heart of the current model of capitalism. They are increasingly recognised by a wide range of economists, political theorists and social commentators far beyond the “workers revolutionary” fringe that some might try to imply.

Whether Mr Corbyn gets elected or not his success to date in galvanising a very broad spectrum of people needs to be recognised. The Labour party needs to rethink its policies across the board and consider whether it is addressing the needs of a) the people that have traditionally relied upon it, the poor, the weak, the powerless; b) those whose opportunities are starting to become more and more constrained, the 90%, and c) the population of planet earth.

If this sounds a touch apocalyptic it is meant to. We seem to be heading into the perfect storm at the moment with Mr Magoo at the helm. There is a very radical agenda to be addressed and articulated for the challenges of today. The Labour Party should be doing it. It has failed to do it to date. It needs to gain the courage of its historical convictions and do it now. Not because it is an election winning strategy (although I think it is) but because it is right.

Mr Corbyn, whether he becomes leader or not, may have acted as midwife to a reborn Labour Party. If he does then he has done us all a great service.