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21 November 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 7:50am

How Labour’s manifesto diluted the radical policies of its grassroots

By Patrick Maguire

The grassroots policy proposals passed by Labour conference this September were striking in their radicalism: a Green New Deal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, the retention of free movement for EU citizens and its extension to other countries, and the abolition of private schools. 

But, beneath the headlines and despite the overwhelming support of ordinary members, that prospectus was met with considerable resistance from the party’s established powerbrokers in the shadow cabinet and trades unions. Their more cautious approach is borne out in the manifesto unveiled by Jeremy Corbyn in Birmingham this morning. 

Of the three big commitments made at conference, Labour’s decarbonisation policy had the most difficult birth. Campaigners for a Green New Deal initially demanded the party sign up to a policy of zero emissions by 2030. The GMB union, which has sizeable representation in the energy section, would not wear it. 

Nor did it agree to a compromise of net zero emissions by 2030. After a lengthy process broke up without agreement, the net-zero-by-2030 target passed conference only thanks to the intervention of the Fire Brigades Union. But given the enduring opposition of the GMB, it was unlikely to survive Saturday’s Clause V meeting – a process to decide the Labour manifesto, through which the bigger unions can wield much greater clout – and so it proved. 

After lobbying from Tim Roache, the GMB’s general secretary, conference’s commitment to work “towards a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030” does not appear in the manifesto. Instead, it commits only to “achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030” and “put the UK on track for a net-zero carbon energy system within the 2030s”. While both Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s shadow business secretary, and Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, have sought to spin the new form of words as a commitment to a 2030 target, it is unarguably weaker than the conference policy. The Labour for a Green New Deal campaign have nonetheless endorsed the new position.

On free movement, the revision is sharper still. Though Diane Abbott tweeted her support of the conference policy to “maintain and extend” the current migration regime last week, the manifesto makes no attempt to square the circle of that commitment with the opposition of Unite, Labour’s most powerful affiliate. Instead, it acknowledges that free movement will continue in the event that the UK remains a member of the EU – and says only that it will be subject to negotiations in the event that Brexit happens. There is no pledge to demand free movement in those negotiations, with the manifesto merely acknowledging the benefits of the policy and its importance to the citizens to whom it currently applies.

Just as ambitious, meanwhile, was the Abolish Eton campaign’s conference policy on private schools. Backed by Momentum, it sailed through. In theory, it bound Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner and the Labour leadership to work towards the integration of independent schools into the state sector via three sweeping measures: the abolition of charitable status, public subsidies and tax privileges; a 7 per cent cap on university admissions from private schools; and the redistribution of their endowments, properties or investments. Yet even before the motion was passed, however, the private view of key players in and around the shadow cabinet was that very little of it would become party policy.

That was partly because of its radicalism. The suggestion that a Labour government would expropriate the assets of private schools alarmed those who will ultimately be responsible for translating last night’s vote into a workable programme of policy as much as it horrified the party’s critics. It proved too much even for shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who made a last-minute appeal to activists to water the policy down on the eve of its approval by delegates. Aides also believed the motion was so badly worded as to give them plenty of scope to ignore its bolder proposals. “We’ll do the first and withdraw the tax privileges, and ignore the rest,” one told me at the time. 

And again, so it has proved. The manifesto limits its section on independent schools to a single paragraph: “We will close the tax loopholes enjoyed by elite private schools and use that money to improve the lives of all children, and we will ask the Social Justice Commission to advise on integrating private schools and creating a comprehensive education system.”

Though Labour conference is notionally sovereign and Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to internal democracy older than many of his MPs, Westminster will be unsurprised by Labour’s failure to live up to the policy programme passed in Brighton. Many in the shadow cabinet and unions will be positively relieved. But plenty of the younger grassroots activists who played a part in formulating and passing the policies that have been diluted or ignored will be bitterly disappointed. That is a divide that will dog the party long after Corbyn himself has left the stage.

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