Labour: the manifesto, the movement, and us

Submitted by AWL on 27 November, 2019 - 8:16 Author: Sacha Ismail
Labour Campaign for Free Movement campaigning in Welwyn Hatfield

What Labour's 2019 manifesto promises is, in itself, moderate. But the rich and owners of capital did not get where they are by being generous and easy. They got there by being the most ruthless in pursuit of greed, exploitation, trampling down and squeezing the working class.

After decades of almost everything their own way, they are in no mood to concede. They will fight, aggressively and effectively.

The resistance of capital to a Labour government with this manifesto, and the risk of capitulation or retreat, can be overcome only by a strong and militant labour movement.

Despite its gaps on some big issues, the manifesto is at the left-wing end of what we expected, certainly on social provision and public ownership. It is more radical than 2017 and than the policies Labour put forward in the first weeks of the campaign.

But that better-than-expected left-wing character poses a problem. The manifesto includes many solid demands which Labour should have been campaigning for for years. Take council services. The party leadership has long resisted the call to reverse all the cuts. Only a few weeks ago its local government spokesperson responded to a letter from 120 Labour council leaders and mayors calling for this policy with evasive waffle.

Then, suddenly, there it is, a clear manifesto commitment. Why has Labour not built proper long-term campaigns around this kind of policy?

Relying on the manifesto to autonomously and quickly generate momentum in the same way that 2017's seemed to was not a good strategy. Activists have to be geared to convince people, not to assume the policies will automatically cut through.

If the Tories win, there may be a "moderate" or "soft-left" Labour backlash claiming the problem was too much radicalism. But the immediate problem is something else: the shortage of proper debate in the movement, and of proper effort in previous months and years to convince and educate voters about the policies and a frame of general socialist ideas into which they integrate, and to organise a really active movement.

The 2019 manifesto is broadly similar in character to the 2017 one. It aims to claw back a chunk of the income siphoned away by the rich over the years to rebuild and expand public social provision.

Measured against socialism and the demands of class struggle, and specifically on issues connected in various ways to the nation and nationalism (Brexit, immigration and migrants' rights, military issues), the manifesto falls short.

But, as Leon Trotsky put it in relation to a left-ish program from the Belgian Labour Party in the 1930s: "We share the difficulties of the struggle but not the illusions. Our criticism of the illusions must, however, not increase the passivity of the workers and give it a pseudo-theoretic justification, but on the contrary push the workers forward".

The widespread pessimism and disillusionment, which at the moment seems more entrenched than in 2017, can be turned round.

To defeat neoliberalism, we need to organise to fight capitalism, with the guiding goal of overthrowing it and taking wealth and power out of the hands of the ruling class, through workers' control and social ownership across the economy.

We want to build up and transform our labour movement, Labour Party and trade unions, by building workplace and community organisations capable of fighting to implement this manifesto and go beyond it.


The Labour Party has never been seriously committed to socialism, but from 1923 to 1987 (even in the right-wing 1950s) its manifestos always contained some promise of socialism as a vision, a long-term aim, or the dominant guiding value.

"Further achievements towards a really Socialist Commonwealth" (1924); "Socialism provides the only solution for the evils" (1931); "ultimate purpose... the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth" (1945); "policy based on the ethical principles of Socialism" (1959); "programme of socialist reconstruction" (1983)...

In this manifesto, more left-wing than most, the word "socialism" is used only once, and not to state an aim but to describe what already exists in the NHS.

The manifesto states that "the Labour Party was founded to give working-class people a voice in politics". It makes the case for workers to organise. However, its class message is meagre even compared to the October 1974 manifesto's call for "a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families".

2019's is more a vision of "rebalancing" where society must fight to curb abuses by "bad employers" and reshape society to win a harmony of interests between the working and employing classes.

Brexit, free movement and migrants' rights

The fact that Labour now advocates a fresh Brexit referendum is a win for the internationalist left. That Labour has no position on what to say in a referendum is bad politically, and communicates weakness and shiftiness.

Here the manifesto reflects the vote at Labour conference; but Jeremy Corbyn's statement that he personally will be "neutral" signals yet further evasiveness.

The 2017 manifesto stated flatly that "Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union". 2019 is better: "If we remain in the EU, freedom of movement would continue. If we leave, it will be subject to negotiations, but we recognise the social and economic benefits that free movement has brought both in terms of EU citizens here and UK citizens abroad – and we will seek to protect those rights."

Further good points: giving migrants voting rights, giving refugees the right to work, removing requirements for landlords to check immigration status, pushing to restart rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Bad points: sticking to the ridiculous policy of closing only two out of eleven detention centres while reviewing the rest. No mention of "No recourse to public funds", i.e. making many migrants pariahs by denying them access to services (though that is an improvement from 2017, which promised to extend NRPF).

The impact of the internationalist left's campaigning and victories at conference is visible, but it's partial and messy.

Tackling climate change

The section on climate change represents real progress, but is inadequate and a retreat from the - already limited - policy passed at conference.

It includes versions of demands on public ownership, public investment and democratic control endorsed by conference. Public ownership of electricity supply is an important step forward from 2017, but falls short of full ownership of energy.

The leadership has retreated from the clear conference call for net-zero emissions by 2030, promising a "substantial majority of emissions reductions" by then. On airport expansion, crucial to emissions reduction, the conference dodged, and the manifesto waffles.

The conference demand for free or much cheaper public transport is absent, though a few policies imply improvement in this area.

An even minimally radical economic reorganisation is impossible without public ownership and democratic control of banking and high finance, as campaigned for by the Fire Brigades Union and endorsed by this year's TUC Congress. Instead, we have a plan to bar companies with bad environmental profiles from the London Stock Exchange and a lame desire to see "that the UK’s financial sector is helping to tackle the emergency" and to improve "the fitness of our financial authorities to mobilise green investment".

The "Post Bank" promised in another section is not really a step down the necessary road.

Social provision and public ownership

To public ownership of transport, utilities, Royal Mail and now much of energy, the manifesto adds Openreach and associated sections of BT, in order to provide free full-fibre broadband by all by 2030. However you assessed it previously, there is little here about the “new models of ownership” the leadership talked about.

The manifesto commits to reversing all council cuts since 2010, in the lifetime of one Parliament. It is more straightforward and emphatic about reversing NHS privatisation than in 2017, and promises free prescriptions and basic dental check-ups. It has commitments to transform the benefits system and reverse many Tory cuts.

The 2017 manifesto promised "the biggest council [house] building programme for at least 30 years", but in 1987 only about 15,000 council homes were built. This one comes close to adopting the policy passed at Labour conference, promising that "by the end of the Parliament we will be building at an annual rate of at least 150,000 council and social homes, with 100,000 of these built by councils for social rent... we will establish a new duty on councils to plan and build these homes... and fund them to do so".

It contains measures for private renters including "rent controls, open-ended tenancies, and new, binding minimum standards", plus support for renters' unions.

Another conference demand resisted by the leadership is abolishing academies and "free schools", now 77% of English secondary schools and 35% of primaries. The manifesto uses several formulations which suggest moving in the direction of a fully comprehensive, local authority-run system, but with major ambiguities.

On private schools, despite conference's vote to scrap them, it commits only to closing tax loopholes and a review. Nothing about religious schools, though there is a commitment to stronger and LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education.

The pledge for more police is there, though thankfully not as central as it was. The manifesto ups the 2017 promise of 3,000 extra firefighters to at least 5,000 (11,000 have been cut) and includes most of the FBU's demands for reshaping the fire and rescue framework post-Grenfell.

Free social care for older people is progress, but beyond that is only an "ambition to extend this provision to all working-age adults", with a meantime ÂŁ100,000 lifetime cap for care costs.

The childcare policy is also progress but inadequate both in terms of the number of free hours and of public provision as opposed to subsidising private providers.

Freeing our unions

The manifesto promises better rights for individual workers and measures against union-busting. It also pledges: "We will start to roll out sectoral collective bargaining... to agree legal minimum standards on a wide range of issues, such as pay and working hours, that every employer in the sector must follow".

Today 20-25% of workers have wages set by collective bargaining. In 1980, 75-80% did. The manifesto suggests not just encouragement but a legal mandate for collective bargaining, including sector-wide bargaining - something like the Liberals' Trade Boards of 1909, expanded into Wages Councils in 1945, which at their peak covered 2.5 million workers (but were abolished in 1986). Or, if it goes further, something like the Australian "award" system, introduced in 1904 and still current though much weakened.

The manifesto restates the commitment to a minimum wage of ÂŁ10ph for all workers over 16, but says nothing about its level after 2020.

On the right to strike and freeing the unions from anti-strike laws, the 2017 manifesto included a few words on repealing only the 2016 Trade Union Act. Now we have a promise to "remove unnecessary [?] restrictions on industrial action" and "repeal anti-trade union legislation including the Trade Union Act 2016 [our emphasis] and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions to help them win a better deal for working people." Much better but still vague.


The manifesto promises to give votes to all legal UK residents, i.e. to non-citizen immigrants, and to 16 and 17 year olds; and to promote voter-inclusion. (According to the Electoral Commission in September 2019, 9.4 million eligible people were not registered as voters.)

It pledges to "work to" abolish the House of Lords in favour of a "senate of the nations and regions".

It talks of a "democratic revolution", but its promise of a "Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens' assembly" suggests an unelected and only advisory body, rather than a proper constitutional assembly. There is nothing about the UK's undemocratic electoral system. The monarchy is not mentioned, there is little about reshaping the police and armed forces, and there are only hints about reorganising the country on a federal basis. There is no vision for the constitutional future of Northern Ireland beyond defending the Good Friday Agreement.

There is general praise for decentralisation but no specific commitment on re-empowering local government. The manifesto pledges to make elected mayors more accountable: scrapping them would be better, as would returning to committee- and not cabinet-run councils.

The manifesto contains nothing like the proposal advocated and adopted by some radical Labour candidates for MPs to take a worker's wage.


The emphasis is more on progressive, humanitarian diplomacy than supporting workers' and democratic movements in other countries.

Good surprises include support for the right of the Chagos Islanders to return to their homeland stolen by the British military, and a mention of China's persecution of the Uyghurs.

The Israel-Palestine policy is similar to 2017 and basically good: support for the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state settlement.

Not good: support for Trident and NATO; a promise to maintain defence spending to "guarantee that our armed forces are versatile and capable of fulfilling the full range of roles and obligations"; and boasts about support for the UK's "world-leading" "defence industry" - though also a pledge of stricter controls on arms sales.

The fight against oppression

Positive proposals, though with little detail, include "reforming the Gender Recognition Act to allow self-declaration for transgender people"; "uphold[ing] women’s reproductive rights and decriminalis[ing] abortions"; and introducing no-fault divorce.

The 2017 manifesto talked explicitly about tacking antisemitism, anti-Gypsy, Roma and Traveller racism, and Islamophobia; the 2019 doesn't, beyond proposals around stronger protection for places of worship including synagogues and mosques. No small omission!

• The manifesto
• Climate change policy passed at Labour conference
• "Free Our Unions” statement on manifesto
• Free movement/migrants’ rights candidates’ pledge
• Preview from Solidarity 525
• 2017 manifesto

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