You couldn’t argue with most of Labour’s manifesto drafted by Jeremy Corbyn and his team.
Abolition of tuition fees, extra resources for schools and the NHS, building 100,000 new affordable homes, lifting the public sector pay freeze, increased resources for local councils, repeal of the hated bedroom tax and recent anti-union laws all feature in the manifesto.
There are positive commitments on pensions and social care as well as benefits in what appears as an end to Tory-imposed austerity in the wake of the financial crash.
Public ownership returns as a policy after a 30-year absence with the renationalisation of the railways – albeit at a slow pace – and the water industry.
Naturally, the right wing who control the party machine have insisted on the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system and opposition to a new referendum on Scottish independence.
There are significant issues in the manifesto, however, which need addressing if Corbyn’s plan is to have a realistic chance of success.
These are to do with financing the policies and whether state intervention on the scale proposed is possible given the changes to the global economy since a manifesto of this type was put forward. The two things are connected.
The manifesto’s social policies will require another £50 billion to fund. This is scheduled to come from increases in various business taxes and from wealthier salary earners. Another £250 billion will be needed for the public ownership programme, which will come from capital borrowing.
Since the advent of corporate-led globalisation in the 1970s, however, getting taxes out of big business has proved increasingly difficult. A whole series of tax avoidance and mitigation measures – all legal – have hit treasuries all over the world.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the tax take from Labour’s policies could be nearer to half the £50 billion, leaving a Corbyn government £25 billion short.
Corporations now contribute only about 9% of the state’s tax revenues Nearly 70% comes from wage earners (income tax and national insurance contributions), consumers (in the shape of VAT) and householders (council tax).
State intervention on the scale set out would defy the globalisation process and even try to reverse it. Resistance would come from all quarters – in particular from financial markets and undoubtedly from the state itself.
The UK’s capitalist type of state, as Democracy Unchained argues, is far from being a neutral participant in economic and political affairs. Throughout its history, the state has promoted and, when necessary, defended the status quo – i.e. private ownership of the means of production and finance – with all the means at its disposal.
More than most similar types of state, the UK’s has gone about globalisation with a relish, privatising this, outsourcing that, deregulating here and inviting corporate ownership of everything from airports to care homes.
The previous, interventionist, welfare state has morphed into a market state. Can we go backwards in history to a more benign period (whenever that was)? It will actually be easier to go forward to a real democracy to create the conditions for social transformation that Corbyn and many others desire.
Capitalism (this term is not mentioned in the manifesto’s 22,000 words, nor is socialism) and a functioning democracy are incompatible in a period of global crisis and the drive towards authoritarian rule.
The manifesto begins to address this critical question with an important section on “the growing democratic deficit across Britain”. Under the heading of “Extending Democracy”, the manifesto says:
“As we change our constitutional relationship with Europe, we must also adjust our own arrangements. Just as many felt that power was too centralised and unaccountable in Brussels, so many feel that about Westminster. A Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on its form and terms of reference and invite recommendations on extending democracy. This is about where power and sovereignty lies – in politics, the economy, the justice system, and in our communities. The Convention will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country.”
If Corbyn wins the general election, creating an independent convention on the constitution should be top of his government’s agenda. That would be a first step towards involving and mobilising the mass of the people to turn Britain’s power structures on their head.