“The significance of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos is that they sought to resolve the deep structural dysfunctions of capitalism by transitioning to socialism. This is the only enduring answer to the overlapping crises we currently face.”Dr Mary Robertson
At the recent conference, ‘A society in crisis: building a progressive policy platform,’ hosted by SOAS, Claim the Future, and the ICOP project, Dr Mary Robertson, the Labour Party’s former head of economic policy, spoke about the framework underpinning the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos and why it should continue to inform our thinking about the multiple crises we face.
At a time when there is a renewed discussion about Labour’s economic policy, we republish her speech here as a valuable contribution to the debate and a reflection on what makes a socialist policy agenda distinctive – and necessary.
I’m glad we’re opening today with a discussion of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos because even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted them to, the programme they set out is and should continue to be the basis for any future left policy agenda.
I sound a bit like Liz Truss – things may’ve gone completely wrong but that doesn’t make us wrong.
But the crucial difference between Truss and us, is that we are still fighting for a chance to implement our policies – they haven’t been tested .
I’m going to start by giving a big picture account of how the 2017 and 19 manifestos were conceived and what they were trying to achieve, and then offer some reflections on their significance for the current moment.
Developing the manifestos
The first thing to say is that the manifestos were produced by the movement – they reflected the demands developed by members, campaigners, unions over many years.
But rather than describe the processes through which those demands were adopted and developed, I’m going to attempt to articulate the conceptual framework that underpinned them.
In this respect, it’s crucial to understand that our starting point wasn’t focus groups or prevailing notions of political “acceptability”. It was wanting to resolve the multifaceted crises our economy faces – ecological, of poverty and insecurity, of inequality. They therefore reflected our assessment of their underlying causes.
Broadly speaking, the manifestos have three pillars or strands, which address different layers of problem, each of which demands increasingly radical responses in terms of policy:
- Ending austerity
- Restructuring the economy
- Ownership and economic democracy
There’s been a bit of a tendency since the Johnson Government, and the high levels of spending necessitated by the pandemic, to see austerity as in the past. I hope Sunak’s premiership has put that complacency to rest by showing how entrenched austerity now is in our institutions.
Regardless, austerity was the prevailing political consensus when Jeremy became leader. Opposing it was probably the major factor in his election as leader. And our first priority in policy terms was to challenge austerity and make commitments to reversing it.
In 2017 we committed to an additional £73.6bn a year of (current and capital) spend by the final year of the parliament and in 2019 that increased to £137.9bn.
It’s important to stress that austerity is not simply a matter of levels of spending but also the composition of spending. What drove austerity was not fiscal responsibility as such, but an establishment attempt, post-2008, to shift the burden of economic adjustment on to the working class and multiply-disadvantaged.
Our goal in ending austerity was not to change numbers in a spreadsheet, but to change where the cost of adjustment falls by increasing taxes on the rich and corporations while increasing spending on public services and social security.
As a response to the 2008 crisis, austerity reflected and resulted from deeper structural problems in our economy: the dominance of finance and the destabilising effects of speculation; regional and sectoral imbalances; the low wage, low productivity plateau. These can be collectively understood as symptoms of neoliberalism in Britain.
The second pillar of the 2017-9 programme therefore sought a major restructuring of the economy to address these problems. The set of policies through which these changes were pursued sought to break with the economic model that prevailed since the 1980s. They included: major public investment through a National Transformation Fund and a National Investment Bank; an interventionist industrial strategy to nurture socially important industries; and a huge increase in labour rights designed to rebalance power in the workplace.
By 2019, our programme for structural reform was fully integrated with responding to the climate crisis. Hence a Sustainable Investment Board would oversee public and private investment and was mandated to deliver economic and ecological sustainability. We also produced a regional manifesto for every region of Britain that set out detailed plans for industrial transformation as a means of achieving ambitious climate targets.
Transitioning to a sustainable economic model through a major restructuring of the economy was therefore the second pillar of the programme.
Ownership and economic democracy
I’ve said that beyond ending austerity, the manifestos were written as conscious proposals for ending neoliberalism. But this, of course, begs the question of what replaces it.
Some have interpreted the manifestos as simply trying to bring back something like the Keynesian post-war consensus.
It’s really important to reject this reading because it forgets that the post-war settlement was a complete aberration in the history of capitalism and the product of very particular historical circumstances (the post-war room for catch-up growth; the communist threat posed by presence of Soviet Bloc; a stronger labour movement; the ability to share the spoils of Britain’s imperial adventures, and more).
To say that the manifestos wanted to revive a political settlement that reflected the particular circumstances of the 1950s and 60s impute a level of incoherence that just isn’t there. I think it’s pretty clear that, especially by 2019, the manifestos weren’t about reviving a Keynesian settlement, they were about going forward to socialism.
And the key evidence for this is the emphasis placed on reforming ownership and economic democracy. This set of policies included democratic public ownership of energy, water, rail, mail and telecoms (or what was called Broadband communism); widespread insourcing; promoting CWB and co-ops; and making the case for expansive universal public services, to include food, transport, education, social care etc.
All these policies sought to roll back the profit motive in production and allocation of resources and reduce the scope of markets.
I’m not claiming that these policies amounted to socialism. But I am arguing that they were a step in that direction. They were about prefiguring a new society in which fundamental questions about how society’s resources are allocated and deployed are decided through collective, democratic processes.
So, ending austerity, restructuring the economy and widening ownership and economic democracy: those were the three pillars of the 2017-9 programme and need to be the pillars of a progressive policy agenda going forward.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things we got wrong or parts we’d change. For me, we didn’t manage to fully confront Britain’s role in imperial core in economic terms, or sufficiently centre that role in its vision of transformation.
This is reflected, for example, in our failure to resolve ongoing questions about how to deliver a transition that is globally and not just nationally just.
It also reflected in our failure to make a progressive case for immigration – or to recognise that migration is another modality of Britain’s imperial role (captured by Sivanandan’s famous quote “we are here because you are there”).
But despite these and some other areas where we need to do better, I do think that these three pillars, and the analyses of contemporary crises that underpins them, are fundamentally correct.
And thinking about the programme in terms of these three pillars also has some implications for our current political strategy.
The key one is that our policies need to be equal to dealing with the deepest dysfunctions of capitalism. A government that doesn’t do that, whether Labour or Tories or whoever, will be here in five or ten years shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic while things get even worse.
Even a Labour government that adopts versions of some of our policies (like Great British Energy, for example) will be a Pyhrric victory. Isolated from the wider programme, individual policies lose their transformative potential – simply cherry picking random policies is more likely to lead to them being co-opted and neutered and used for left cover.
The significance of the manifestos is that they sought to resolve the deep structural dysfunctions of capitalism by transitioning to socialism. This is the only enduring answer to the overlapping crises we currently face.
It’s crucial that the defeats we have suffered since don’t force us to lower our sights. We must continue to fight for an adequate socialist policy agenda and a party leadership which enables it.
- Dr Mary Robertson, is the former head of economic policy for the Labour Party and a lecturer at Queen Mary’s University of London. You can follow her on twitter here.
- “A society in crisis: building a progressive policy platform” was hosted by John McDonnell in coordination with Claim the Future,SOAS and ICOP. You can read our coverage of the confernce here; and follow Claim the Future on Facebook and Twitter.