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12 May 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:28pm

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. 

By Greg Rosen

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.”

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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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