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Forget 1983 - Labour's 2017 manifesto is a throwback to New Labour

Voters will like the manifesto pledges. They may not believe them to be true. 

Labour’s leaked draft manifesto has brought predictable comparisons with the so-called “longest suicide note in history” manifesto of 1983, so called because of both its length and its electoral impact.

While Labour’s draft 2017 effort, at 20,000 words, is some 3,000 words shorter than the 1983 original, it is also significantly different in content.

The 1983 manifesto focussed on reversing the changes wrought to Britain by Margaret Thatcher’s post-1979 agenda and realising the agenda that Jeremy Corbyn’s great friend and mentor Tony Benn had been advocating since the early 1970s. Benn’s "alternative economic strategy" envisaged import controls (quotas or tariffs on manufactured goods); rationing and allocation of certain imports and of fuel; work-sharing and employment subsidies; controls on capital outflows; tax increases; selective subsidies to industry; controls on banks and financial institutions to channel funds into the public sector; further defence cuts; and the wider development of Anglo-Soviet trading arrangements.

The 2017 Labour manifesto is a less Bennite document. In fact, much of Labour 2017 draft manifesto focuses on reversing the Cameron/Osborne agenda and reverting to Blair/Brown era legislation: restoring New Labour if you like.

Indeed some phrases are eerily familiar. On crime, Labour’s draft 2017 manifesto says: “We still need to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, too.”

On trade union rights, Labour’s 1983 manifesto committed to reducing industrial democracy. It pledged to remove the legal rights to secret ballots over industrial action that had been guaranteed to workers by Margaret Thatcher’s employment legislation. In contrast, the 2017 Labour manifesto contains commitments to explore extending industrial democracy by permitting secure online balloting for industrial action votes.

Labour’s 1983 manifesto pledged to replace Britain’s nuclear power programme with an expansion of coal, and to ban lead in petrol. Labour’s 2017 manifesto makes no mention of coal and aspires instead to claim the mantle of the “greenest government ever” through an expansion of nuclear and renewables, like Blair and Brown, and makes no mention of lead in petrol either, presumably because Tony Blair had banned that already.

Labour’s 1983 manifesto committed to the introduction of import controls and re-introduction of exchange controls. Voters were unimpressed: having suffered the growing unreliability of UK-made cars they were sceptical of Labour’s plan to use import controls to stop them from buying overseas-made alternatives. So unhelpful were the pledges contained in Labour’s 1983 manifesto that Conservative HQ purchased one thousand copies to hand out.

Labour’s 2017 manifesto is different in both tone and content: “Labour is pro-trade and pro-investment. The UK's future prosperity depends on minimising tariff and non-tariff barriers that prevent us from exporting and creating the jobs and economic growth we need. Labour will bring forward an integrated trade and industrial strategy that boosts exports, investment and decent jobs in Britain.”

The electoral challenge for Labour in 2017 will be not that the specifics of its draft manifesto is a “cut-and-paste” of the 1983 Tony Benn agenda – it isn’t. The real challenge lies in the fact that many voters suspect Labour’s current leadership might not in fact prefer the aspirations of 1983 to what the 2017 manifesto actually does say.

Even where the 2017 manifesto language is apparently clear, the actual policy is sometimes less so. Labour’s 1983 manifesto pledged to scrap Trident while its 2017 manifesto “supports the renewal of the Trident submarine system”. But what that means in practice, given the personal reservations that Labour’s leader has expressed over the nuclear deterrent, becomes opaque.

A further challenge to Labour’s 2017 manifesto will be that a popular slogan in itself does not a better policy outcome guarantee. While polls show that many voters support some form of rail renationalisation in the hope that it would lead to a more passenger-sensitive rail system, the track record of nationalised rail in the UK is patchy. Lest we forget, it was nationalised British Rail that gave us the Beeching Axe which proposed closing 55 per cent of stations and 30 per cent of railway route miles. Labour suggested it would reverse it, but didn’t.

Moreover, that a spending pledge itself is potentially popular and worthwhile – whether to “invest to build over a million new homes”, to “take one million people off NHS waiting lists “, or to “to plant a million trees of native species” – does not guarantee that the economic numbers behind it will appear credible to voters. The final version of Labour’s 2017 manifesto will need to ensure that its numbers all add up.

Unless it succeeds, Labour will risk failing one of the greatest tests it faces at the 2017 election: establishing greater economic credibility than the Conservatives; to persuade voters that it can run the economy better.

That was the central challenge for Labour’s leaders in the 1970s just as much as it is now. It has rarely been so well encapsulated as by Labour’s leader, the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, in his famous speech to Labour Party conference in 1976:

“[we cannot] buy our way out by printing what Denis Healey calls “confetti money” to pay ourselves more than we produce...

Let me add one more thing about how to get a strong manufacturing sector of industry. Hold on to your seats. The willingness of industry to invest in new plants and machinery requires, of course, that we overcome inflation, but also that industry is left with sufficient funds and has sufficient confidence to make new investments. When I say they must have sufficient funds, I mean that they must be able to earn a surplus and that is a euphemism for saying they must be able to make a profit. (Applause.)

Whether you call it a surplus or a profit, it is necessary for a healthy industrial system, whether it operates in a socialist economy, a mixed economy or a capitalist economy. If industry cannot retain and generate sufficient funds as a result of its operations, and replace old plant and machinery, then you will whistle in vain for the investment and we shall continue to slide downhill. These are elementary facts of life. They are known to every trade unionist. Who would they sooner go and negotiate with when they want an increase in pay: a firm that is bankrupt or a firm that is doing well and generating a good surplus?

We began as a party of protest. We must never lose that, never forget it. There are many ills and many evils in the condition of our society that have still to be remedied. But we are more; we are now a party of Government, a party which has put many of the aspirations of the pioneers on the statute book, as the law of our land...”

Greg Rosen is the author of Old Labour to New, Chair of the Labour History Group and Director, Public Policy at Newington.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear