Set aside Jeremy Corbyn and John MacDonnell, let’s look at a radical, Labour Party manifesto – the one that, in 1945, got elected the most successful, progressive government of modern times. And I challenge you not to be inspired. That manifesto introduced a Labour government that went on, not just to clear up from bombed cities and infrastructure, but to build the NHS and nationalised hospitals, built 800,000 homes, universalised and reformed secondary schooling, created a child welfare system, modernised industry with development investment, brought the Bank of England into public control. Clement Attlee’s government created social security and disability allowances, finally abolished the pernicious (Elizabethan) ‘Poor Law’ and gave people rights to State support through a National Insurance (NI) scheme, built a network of New Towns, and raised pensions. The public utilities (gas, water) were brought under public control to guarantee service for all, and the great industries which had only barely served the war effort were nationalised, too – steel, coal, railways, energy. The residual strength of local government, and the common expectation of full employment – which was an innovation of that government – are its legacy, too. In fact, the society we have today – much of it now being dismantled – is still the society created by that Labour government. And all of this accomplished in six years between 1945 and 1951! But right now, HERE AND NOW – 13 years of Tory austerity and decline? “Look upon my works, ye mighty – and despair!”
This manifesto makes Corbyn’s look timid. It was written, not in boilerplate language and bland political rhetoric. It was an engaging narrative, argumentative, written to capture attention and to be persuasive. Look at it. Above all, it cut through courtesy to tell it like it was. Listen to this passage which decries the profiteering from war and its possible continuation after the war – looking back to the First World War the manifesto argued that by leaving economic control to the corporate state and the wealthy the working man and woman had “won the war but lost the peace”. The “racketeers” had “plundered” the country. Now, in 1945, WW2 was almost over, and the incoming Labour government was determined to keep protective controls in place (for a modern equivalent, think of the EU laws guaranteeing working conditions, environmental protections, food security and so on – being scrapped right now). Said the manifesto:
“But the war in the East is not yet over. There are grand pickings still to be had. A short boom period after the war, when savings, gratuities and post-war credits are there to be spent, can make a profiteer’s paradise. But Big Business knows that this will happen only if the people vote into power the party which promises to get rid of the controls and so let the profiteers and racketeers have that freedom for which they are pleading eloquently on every Tory platform and in every Tory newspaper…They accuse the Labour Party of wishing to impose controls for the sake of control. That is not true, and they know it. What is true is that the anti-controllers and anti-planners desire to sweep away public controls, simply in order to give the profiteering interests and the privileged rich an entirely free hand to plunder the rest of the nation as shamelessly as they did in the nineteen-twenties.”
Labour made an impassioned argument for the realisation of citizen freedoms after the command-and-control economy of the war years, and a restoration of civil liberties. However:
“- there are certain so-called freedoms that Labour will not tolerate: freedom to exploit other people; freedom to pay poor wages and to push up prices for selfish profit; freedom to deprive the people of the means of living full, happy, healthy lives.”
Where did the money come from for all of this (today’s kibbitzing media would insist)? In fact, throughout this government Britain had a national debt of 250% of GDP (today it stands at less than 100%), and the country lived under a period of continuing food rationing and severe austerity. But this was no obstacle to debt-fuelled reconstruction and growth. Debt was entirely manageable over the long-term. Debt was the driver. Recovering from the pandemic – which cost a fraction of the second war?? A walk-in-the-park in comparison.
The manifesto closed by making clear and stark the choice facing a nation that had, in the recent and distant past, been held hostage by the privileged.
“And the effective choice of the people in this Election will be between the Conservative Party, standing for the protection of the rights of private economic interest, and the Labour Party, allied with the great Trade Union and co-operative movements, standing for the wise organisation and use of the economic assets of the nation for the public good.”
A divided country? Of course! WHAT ELSE?!?! And in case the electorate were in any doubt as to where that Labour government was coming from, this rousing call:
“These propositions seem indisputable, but for years before the war anti-Labour Governments set them aside, so that British industry over a large field fell into a state of depression, muddle and decay. Millions of working and middle class people went through the horrors of unemployment and insecurity. It is not enough to sympathise with these victims: we must develop an acute feeling of national shame – and act. The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.”
Is this country, today, strong and aware enough to “develop an acute feeling of national shame” for those we have allowed to suffer the dismantling of benefits, the ‘bedroom tax’, cuts to disability allowances, withdrawal of child benefits, handing over tranches of schooling and health to profiteers, and all the cruelties and dysfunctions of unnecessary austerity? We should remind ourselves of that great reforming, modernising, progressive government, and yearn for its return. Who is to protect us from the profiteers and racketeers? Who will curtail today’s plundering of our economy?