The day the 2017 General Election was called, I went to a local meeting of Momentum, the campaigning group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. I sat in silence, struck dumb by the contrast between my expectation of disaster and the enthusiasm and optimism of nearly everyone else in the room. A Tory leader with a gigantic lead in the polls had set out to crush the left for a generation—an obvious and, it seemed, easily achievable aim—yet Momentum seemed unfazed. We can do this, they insisted. Don’t trust the polls. I was incredulous. The others went out for a drink after the meeting, but this, too, seemed like misplaced confidence. So I walked home.
That evening, I went through the books and pamphlets related to the Labour Party on my shelves and picked up the 1983 Labour manifesto, with its (presumably unintentional) Star Wars title, The New Hope for Britain. Many of the people in the room that night would have remembered the manifesto, would have campaigned for it. It is best known in British politics for the post-election remark it provoked, by the late Labour MP Gerald Kaufman. It was, Kaufman said, “the longest suicide note in history.”
Last month, Chris Leslie—a minor MP on the Party’s right who served for a few weeks in 2015 as shadow chancellor—allegedly leaked the draft of the 2017 Labour manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few. The leak produced the expected result—a representative BBC headline: “Labour manifesto leak proves there is bad publicity.” The intent and implications were obvious: not 1983, not again. Never mind that there’s little evidence that the extensive, detailed manifesto that Labour released was decisive in their disastrous electoral failure that year. The Falklands War and a catastrophic split on the left were far more to blame for Labour’s defeat, but political myths in Britain run deep.
There were other manifestos in the pile—my parents’ copies, which they’d gone out and campaigned on, and which contained the policies and changes they’d hoped for and seen ridiculed. (A local election manifesto from 1977 has the cringe-worthy title A Is for Achievement.) Unlike the other manifestos, which are pristine, the copy of New Hope was underlined in various places by my dad. A trade union shop steward, he’d highlighted the policies that pertained to industrial strategy and union rights. The manifesto begins with a foreword by then-Labour leader Michael Foot, a former journalist, who quotes “one of our poets, Idris Davies,” to blast the “long Victorian night” being re-imposed by Margaret Thatcher. At the heart of the document was an “emergency programme of action,” pumping money from a new National Investment Bank into nationalized industries. Britain would abandon its nuclear weapons and leave the European Economic Community, the institution that developed into the European Union.
The headline industrial policies—left-Keynesian means to reduce unemployment and restore growth—sat alongside other policies that are not really discussed anymore in the context of 1983, because they became entirely normal. The Manifesto’s proposals on affirmative action, LGBT rights, environmentalism, investing in public rather than private transportation, a Freedom of Information Bill, devolution to Scotland, and increasing funding for the arts were all later implemented, though by a very different Labour Party. Yet tabloid readers in the early 1980s would have likely found this list far more shocking than the idea of state intervention in industry—most of Thatcher’s privatizations came only after 1983. Regardless, Labour was crushed, winning a mere 27 percent of the vote. Perhaps only a capricious electoral system (which gave the breakaway Social Democratic Party, just behind them at 25 percent, only a tenth of Labour’s seats) saved them as a Party.
Like Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win 40 percent of the popular vote, Jeremy Corbyn was first elected to Parliament in 1983. Corbyn is in every respect a man of 1983—not of the old Labour left, which often had a fairly Neanderthal approach to anything outside the direct workplace class struggle, but of the combination of social liberalism, anti-imperialism, and radical social democracy evident in that year’s campaign. Commentators confidently assumed that any election fought on these policies thirty-four years later would lead to electoral humiliation on, if anything, an even grander scale. Mass rallies for Corbyn in cities from Leeds to Leamington Spa simply proved the point—Michael Foot drew similar crowds in the early 1980s. Yet it was the release of For the Many, Not the Few that marked the moment when the tide turned. In the polling done by YouGov, whose model was later proven more reliable than those of its rivals, a swell of voters started to opt for Labour at exactly the moment of publication.
In order of appearance, roughly speaking, For the Many, Not the Few advocates:
- a tax enforcement program, to end the massive quantity of tax avoidance in the UK and its overseas territories
- a rise in corporation tax (albeit from extremely low levels) and the top rate of income tax
- investment in railway infrastructure
- more free Wi-Fi in public spaces
- investment in renewable energy and retrofitting and the high-skilled jobs that come with them
- renationalization of the Royal Mail, the railways, energy, and water, with particular attention in so doing to co-operatives and municipal forms of ownership
- guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals
- publicly funded apprenticeships, the abolition of tuition, the reinstatement of student grants, and the abolition of zero-hour contracts
- four new public holidays
- the abolition of employment tribunal fees1
- the abolition of benefits sanctions and work capability assessments (a version of what is known in the US as workfare)
- the abolition of the recently introduced “bedroom tax” for council tenants
- rent controls, and a new generation of secure public housing
- reversing the recent part-privatization of the National Health Service
- the introduction of municipal bus companies
- a clean air act (London is now the most polluted capital in Europe)
- a ban on ivory trading
- an “arts pupil premium” in schools
- “clearer rules on who is fit and proper to run TV and radio stations”
- a constitutional convention, including replacing the House of Lords with an elected Second Chamber
Pointedly, anticipating accusations of implausibility, this program was fully funded, with a central role for a prominent part of the 1983 Emergency Programme, a National Investment Bank. But the document isn’t simply a retread. There was no clean air act in 1983, and no specific rules about media ownership. No municipal companies and no new public holidays and (of course) no free Wi-Fi. Yet in some respects it is a less radical manifesto than its antecedent. It’s hard to imagine 1983 Labour advocating staying in the World Trade Organization, had it existed, or committing to increasing the numbers of police and border guards. (The demand that Britain begin the process of leaving the EEC has ironically been fulfilled, however—by a Conservative administration.)
There are also minor differences between the document published and publicly defended by Labour and the original leak, which reflect the complex set of alliances Corbyn has been forced to make. The trade unions, to whom Corbyn owes so much of his success (the two largest, Unite and Unison, unexpectedly backed his leadership campaign in 2015), insisted that Corbyn, a lifelong opponent of both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, commit to renewing the Trident nuclear submarine program. At the last minute, “Brexit secretary” Keir Starmer insisted on inserting the claim that leaving the EU would mean the end of the freedom of movement principle, fudging an otherwise clear and principled policy on immigration. Some of the more newfangled ideas that shadow chancellor John McDonnell has toyed with—such as a Universal Basic Income—are absent, which suggests that even for a radicalized Labour party, anything beyond historical social democracy falls too far outside the comfort zone.
Contra the leaker’s intentions, For the Many, Not the Few was far more popular with the general public than the Conservatives’ manifesto. Forward, Together—last spotted on the side of Hillary Clinton’s campaign bus—is shorter than the Labour manifesto, with no explanation of funding to speak of. It strikes a note at once communitarian and punitive, and so, naturally, commentators were quick to applaud it, convinced as they were that racism and law and order are the main route to working-class votes. But citizens—or rather, non-pundit citizens—didn’t take the bait. The Conservative manifesto’s most discussed policy was a tax on the homes of elderly citizens receiving social care, one of the most needlessly cruel proposals in a document full of them. It was immediately and successfully labeled a “dementia tax” by Labour—proof that the Party had figured out how to define the agenda, rather than merely follow it.
Opinion polls had long shown that left-leaning economic policies were popular in principle. The problem was that there were very few opportunities to vote for them in actual elections. What 2017 shares with 1983 is an unusually deep commitment to these policies, to tangible and plausible things. This approach failed against Margaret Thatcher, whose appeal defied rationality, but proved inspired against Theresa May, a poor speaker and thinker who tried to use the election as a personal plebiscite. This insistence on specific policy was the exact opposite of the approach taken in the 1997 manifesto, New Labour—Because Britain Deserves Better. I don’t have a copy of it—both my parents had left the Party by then (one due to despair, one for the far-left fringe, though under Corbyn they have rejoined, and tried to, respectively)—so I had to find it online. The document is written in a peculiar technocratic language, obsessed with things like “welfare reform,” “choice,” and “the individual.” There will be “zero tolerance of underperformance” in schools, there will be “no return to the 1970s” on trade union rights,2 there will be “personal prosperity,” more “public-private partnerships,” the end of “penal tax rates,” and the end of higher education funding through taxation, rather than tuition. There are some commonalities, such as free access to the “information superhighway” in schools, but what looms largest is the avoidance of tactile promises and actual policies. There are only little fixes that Blair’s Labour could be sure of “delivering.” The concrete policies of the sort advocated in 1983 and 2017 are limited to five “pledges,” which are listed at the end of the document:
- cutting class sizes in schools
- “fast-tracking punishment for young offenders”
- cutting NHS waiting lists
- getting 250,000 under-25s “off benefits and into work”
- no rise in income tax
The 1983 politics of anti-imperialist, socially liberal social democracy had been supplanted with a strange combination of punishment and incremental reform, expressed in coldly professional language.
In this respect—and perhaps this respect alone—New Labour was prescient. The corporate rhetoric that smothers the manifesto would sweep through politics, academia, and the arts in the UK and most of the rest of the world over the subsequent two decades. The emptiness and vapidity of that language is clear only in contrast. For the Many, Not the Few is warm, with an assured, friendly, and relaxed tone free of jargon, but with a potent sense of morality that hasn’t been seen in British politics for many years.3 Early on, it declares, “we will measure economic success not by the number of billionaires, but by the ability of our people to live richer lives.” There are policies on loneliness, on social care, on mental health, on football. What Labour produced is a document that cuts through the talking points relentlessly promoted by Britain’s appalling press—most of them linked to nationalism, racism (the shadow home secretary and Corbyn ally Diane Abbott was the focus of a relentless hate campaign), and grossly patronizing accusations that Labour’s policies could only be funded by a “magic money tree.”
I saw this myself on the day of the election, canvassing last minute at the Progress Estate in Eltham, a suburban seat in southeast London. It’s uneasy territory, a rather beautiful Arts and Crafts estate built during the First World War for munitions workers at the nearby Royal Arsenal, which was closed in the early 1980s. The estate is best known not for its attractive architecture and dreamlike planning, but for being the place where the black teenager and aspiring architect Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by a racist gang. It’s a heavily but decreasingly white area—close to denser, multicultural Woolwich—and hence the sort of place where, according to received opinion, Labour should have been in serious trouble.
I’m a bad canvasser, not good at improvising on the spot, but when one resident came out with personal complaints about Corbyn and Abbott, the canvasser with me immediately replied politely with points directly from the manifesto. The conversation went on for around ten minutes. A neighbor piped in with “and do you want there to still be a Health Service come the next election?” and we had a reluctant convert. Labour won the seat, with an 11 percent increase in their vote. The campaigning apparatus around Momentum, combining teams of thousands descending upon marginal seats alongside videos and memes, will have come across thousands of similar examples. Soon—maybe even within the year—there will be another election, one that Labour is suddenly extremely well placed to win. For the Many, Not the Few might be remembered alongside Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme, a similarly moderate social democratic manifesto made legislatively impossible by international capital. Britain is not Greece, however—room for maneuver is greater, and the stakes are higher. Britain, the first major country to construct neoliberalism, may be the first country to truly dismantle it.
To the casual ear, the name of the manifesto has a very consensual, uncontroversial sound to it: the many, not the few; good things, not bad ones. But the title isn’t a product of focus groups or market research—it comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy.” I was raised in the British left, and I’ve often found its historical and poetic shibboleths tiresome, because they’ve always seemed limited to our small club. The club meets every year at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset, where we all recite our Blake and Shelley, waffle on about Winstanley and Rainsborough while Billy Bragg plays, and sip pints from the Workers Beer Company as the rain pelts down on our heads. The poem is about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, a formative moment for the British Labour movement, when protesters in Manchester demanding a wider franchise were cut down by the yeomanry. (The Massacre is the subject of Mike Leigh’s next film.) Seeing Corbyn recite the poem’s final verse on June 8 felt new—though God knows, he’s probably read it enough times. It was edited into a thirty-second clip, made to be shared on social networks:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few.
This didn’t feel like nostalgia. It felt like redemption.
Since 2013, workers have had to pay exorbitant fees to access Employment Tribunals, which are set up to resolve disputes between employees and employers. ↩
I wrote about the long shadow of the 1970s last month, before the election. ↩
The manifesto’s author is Andrew Fisher, a trade unionist in his thirties who was suspended from Labour in 2015 over a tweet in sarcastic support of the anarchist group Class War. ↩