Thursday, June 12, 2008
Not so suicidal after all
This article of mine appears on the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' site.
It was famously labelled (by the embryonic New Labourite Gerald Kaufman) as "the longest suicide note in history". Labour's 1983 manifesto was blamed by many – including the former prime minister, James Callaghan – for the party suffering a calamitous defeat in the general election held 25 years ago this week.
But was the manifesto really that bad?
Labour planned to counter a savage recession, which had led unemployment to rise to its highest level for 50 years, with an unashamedly Keynesian £11bn "emergency programme of action". The programme involved a five-year economic plan and massive investment in industry. To make sure the extra spending was not soaked up by imports, and to safeguard key industries, import duties would, if necessary, be imposed. Labour's manifesto also promised to re-impose exchange controls – scrapped by the Tories in 1979 – in order to "counter currency speculation and to make available – to industry and government in Britain – the large capital resources that are now flowing overseas".
To help its programme of industrial regeneration, Labour advocated the setting up of a "national investment bank" to put new resources from private institutions and from the government – including North Sea oil revenues – "into our industrial priorities".
Regarding North Sea oil itself, Labour pledged to set up a new "powerful national oil company" in pursuance of its objective of bringing the North Sea oil industry into public ownership. The Tories' programme of privatisation would be halted – and a new programme of public ownership initiated. In addition to re-nationalising the industries already sold off, "significant public stakes would be taken in electronics, pharmaceuticals, health equipment and building materials; and also in other important sectors, as required in the national interest".
Acknowledging that its "radical, socialist policies for reviving the British economy" would be in conflict with the rules of the treaty of Rome, Labour said it would withdraw from the EEC within the lifetime of the next parliament.
In foreign policy, Labour pledged to help improve relations between east and west by restoring detente and promised to work "consistently for peace and disarmament". The party called for the ratification of Salt II and opposed the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in western Europe.
In its mission to create a "fairer Britain", Labour pledged to restore the link between pensions and average earnings – broken by Thatcher in 1980. A new annual tax of personal wealth would be introduced, targeting the richest 100,000 of the population. Part-time workers were to be given the same employment rights as full-time workers.
Some of the 1983 proposals – such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, a Freedom of Information Act, and equal rights for part-time workers – were eventually enacted by Labour after it came to power in 1997. But the bulk of the manifesto was never implemented. A relentless anti-Labour campaign by much of the media – aided by rightwing figures within the party – together with the splitting of the anti-Tory vote on account of the SDP secession, meant that the Conservatives were returned in 1983 with a greatly increased majority, even though their share of the vote was actually lower than in 1979.
A quarter of a century on and we're still experiencing the consequences of that victory.
That moment in 1983 was the last great opportunity to derail the neoliberal bandwagon before it did lasting damage to the UK's economic and social fabric. Labour's emergency programme of action would have halted the de-industrialisation of Britain and removed the spectre of mass unemployment from the land. The re-imposition of exchange controls would have put a break on the growing power of international finance; thanks to Thatcher's deregulatory measures – money power was soon to rule the roost.
The yawning wealth gap, already starting to develop in 1983, would have been reversed by Labour's staunchly progressive tax policies.
Pensioners would have seen their living standards rise, due to the link being restored between average earnings – it's been calculated that if the link had not been broken, a basic state pension for a single pensioner would now be worth £145.15 a week.
The huge increase in homelessness that Britain witnessed in the late 1980s would have been avoided, due to Labour's halting of council house sales and its commitment to public housing.
As to the issue of privatisation – is there anyone, outside of extremist neoliberal thinktanks and those who made a financial killing from it – who still thinks it was a success? Britain has the most expensive and unreliable railway system in Europe (despite receiving over four times more in taxpayer subsidy than British Rail). Our privatised airports are an international disgrace, while the hiving off of key services in NHS hospitals, such as cleaning and catering, has proved disastrous. "Look at the various parts of the national infrastructure that have been privatised, and practically all of them have gone downhill: buses, trains, water, power" – the verdict not of a "hard left" ideologue, but the businessman and designer Sir Terence Conran.
Then there's North Sea oil. Labour's plans for public ownership of North Sea oil was derided by the free-market fanatics back in 1983. Yet there was a country that did follow a statist path to developing its oil wealth: Norway, which now has the second highest per-capita GDP in the world. Adherence to free-market dogma meant Britain squandered the massive financial bonanza that North Sea oil represented; money that could have been spent on industrial regeneration instead went on paying people not to work.
In foreign policy, Labour's espousal of detente would have made more likely the dream of many progressives that the cold war would end not with the "victory" of one side over another, but with a fusion between east and west: with the communist countries in the east becoming progressively more liberal, and western countries becoming progressively more socialist. And pulling out of the EEC would not only have saved British taxpayers a fortune, but enabled Britain to maintain its national sovereignty, free from EEC/EU constraints on state intervention in the economy.
In truth the real "suicide note" in 1983 election was the Conservative party manifesto, which, with its dogmatic espousal of free-market policies, put on us on the road we are today: a debt-ridden, privatised service economy with massive differentials in wealth; a country where the majority of people – working class and middle class – are exploited by an unaccountable, transnational corporate and financial elite. A society where everything has a price, but nothing a value, where the profit motive dominates every aspect of our lives. Worse still, the Thatcherite, neoliberal model is one that has been exported to other countries around the world, including eastern Europe, with similarly disastrous consequences.
"The defeat for the Labour party in the early 1980s was not only a defeat for the Labour party but also a defeat for decency all over the world" said Michael Foot (pictured above), the party's much maligned leader in 1983.
The events of the past 25 years have proved him absolutely right