Three charges against Corbyn’s party are worth consideringby Peter Kellner / May 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Members of the jury,
The Labour Party stands accused of three political crimes in relation to its draft election manifesto. You have heard the evidence. It is now my duty to sum up the evidence you have heard in relation to each of the three charges.
Charge one: that the leak of the draft manifesto shows that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party cannot be trusted to govern the country effectively. The prosecuting counsel, representing the Conservative party and a group of newspapers, says that if the party is unable to keep the manifesto under wraps until the official launch, it cannot be trusted to handle the far greater number of far more important secrets and confidences that must be kept private inside government.
To convict the party of this charge, you must assume that the process of coming to decisions in government involves as many people, with the same range of jealousies and agendas, and same absence of formal responsibility to confidentiality, as the gallery of MPs, activists, trade unionists and others involved in Labour’s “Clause V” manifesto meeting this week.
This is not plausible. Around 80 people had access to Labour’s draft manifesto. Many of them are appointed by, and responsible to, organisations independent of the party leadership. This may be a daft way to go about things, but, members of the jury, that is not what you are being asked to decide. The question is more limited: does the system of drawing up the manifesto of itself make a government led by Corbyn likely to leak more than any other government? The prosecution has failed to prove this beyond reasonable doubt. I direct you to acquit the party on this count.
Charge two: Labour’s draft manifesto is more left-wing than any other since the 1970s. A quick glance at the 1983 manifesto—“the longest suicide note in history”—shows that this is not the case. In that election, Labour promised a far more comprehensive assault on the market economy than anything in this year’s draft. It said it would reverse all the Conservative privatisations, “establish significant public stakes in electronics, pharmaceuticals, health equipment and building materials,” set up public sector corporations for aerospace, telecommunications and shipbuilding, and impose planning agreements on the larger companies that remained in the private sector. The right of council tenants to buy their homes would be ended, and private sector landlords would be far more heavily regulated. Shop prices would be controlled by a new and powerful Price Commission. Members of the jury, you are not being asked here to agree the merits of either the current or the 1983 manifesto, simply to decide which is more left-wing. The answer is clear: that honour, or dishonour, belongs to Michael Foot’s Labour Party, not Jeremy Corbyn’s. Once again, I direct you to acquit the party on this count.
Charge three: Labour’s manifesto is more out of touch with today’s Britain than past manifestos were with the Britain of their day.
Here the central issue is not whether the draft manifesto is the most left-wing in absolute terms in living memory, but whether it is more left-wing relative to the centre of gravity of the day. That centre of gravity has moved a significant distance to the Right since the 1980s. When Michael Foot led the party, many big industries were still in public ownership. Indicative industrial planning had been done by recent Conservative as well as Labour governments. One of the main vehicles for this—“Neddy,” the National Economic Development Council—had indeed been set up by the Tories in the early 1960s. The Thatcher government abolished Neddy, and liberalised other sectors, from housing to exchange controls; but in seeking to reverse these things, Michael Foot was promising to turn the clock back just a few years, not a few decades.
The point can be made schematically. Imagine an absolute left-right scale from zero (Communist) to ten (a low tax, laissez-faire market economy), the centre of gravity pre-Thatcher was, say at four, and Labour’s 1983 manifesto was at two. Today, the centre of gravity is, say, at seven, while Labour wants to move Britain to three.
In other words, Labour’s current manifesto is not quite as left-wing as that in 1983 (three on the scale rather than two)—but wants a greater move away from the current centre of gravity (a four-point shift rather than a two-point shift).
There are two ways to view this, members of the jury. If you regard this shift as a dangerous break with today’s realities, demonstrating little knowledge of how Britain’s society and economy work, likely to drive wealth creators away from our shores, deter investment, force up prices and raise taxes and/or borrowing to unacceptable levels, and so destroy jobs and wreck the economy, then your duty is to find Labour guilty and sentence it to five more years of opposition.
If, on the other hand, you think the long, thirty-year drift to the Right has weakened British society, exacerbated inequality and hurt rather than helped the process of wealth creation; if you believe that Labour’s policies are affordable and that its plans for higher taxes to fund extra public spending on health, education and infrastructure are likely to make the economy grow faster; if, above all, you trust Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to provide competent, intelligent and effective national leadership, then you should acquit the party and hand it the reins of government.
Members of the jury, will you now please retire to consider your verdict.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.