British Labour Party and the Return to Parliamentary Socialism?

In 2002 Margaret Thatcher boasted that one of her major achievements was the conversion of the British Labour Party to form New Labour. Under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, New Labour adopted and contributed to the neo-liberal consensus. In the 1990s, this political outlook spread to continental social democratic parties as well as being adopted by the post-socialist governments of Eastern Europe. New Labour confirmed the free market and a deregulated privatised economy; labour unions lost out to the flexible labour force and the ‘workfare’ state; Labour became the ‘party of business’. In foreign affairs: New Labour fully endorsed NATO; the deterrence policy backed by Trident submarines; international intervention supporting democracy promotion; the Atlantic Alliance led by NATO was strengthened and commitment to the European Union was confirmed and its expansion to the east supported.

The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn

The election in 2015 of Jeremy Corbyn, as head of the Labour Party and Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, marked a radical shift in leadership. Corbyn’s support and power derived from individual Party members and supporters; he faced hostility from the rump of Labour Party Members of Parliament who were elected under, and were predisposed to, Tony Blair’s New Labour regime. Despite being widely dubbed as ‘unelectable’, in the untimely election called by Theresa May in June 2017, Labour under Corbyn increased its membership of the House of Commons. He greatly increased the number of Parliamentary deputies by 30 (giving Labour a total of 262 seats) with a swing of 9.6 per cent to the Labour Party – one of its highest ever shares of the popular vote (40 per cent).

Corbyn was, and remains, a fierce critic of New Labour. He was enthusiastically hailed as a new socialist leader by the Labour rank and file members while being widely abused, and sometimes demonised, by his opponents. He has consistently voted for higher taxes on companies and high earners, opposed the Conservative government’s austerity policy, favours renationalising public utilities (such as water, gas, electricity and railways) and he advocates free higher education. He has held radical views on foreign affairs: he is a long-term supporter and vice-chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and he opposed renewing the Trident nuclear submarine; he has been critical of NATO and its enlargement, which he has described as an instrument of the Cold War; he has advocated an elected President (in place of the monarchy); he strongly condemns the UK’s military inventions abroad, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and has opposed military strikes against Syria. He takes a strong anti-colonialist position and has supported the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and has been favourably disposed to Hamas and Hezbollah. He has been critical of the European Union: he voted against Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community, against ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and against the Lisbon Treaty. But in the current campaign, while remaining critical of the European Union, he has shifted to support a second referendum.

These generally anti-establishment and left-wing views have led to a storm of protest, even indignation, in the media and among the political classes. Robert Shrimsley, in the Financial Times (19 November 2019) is relatively restrained when he calls Corbyn ‘an uncompromising socialist, a unilateralist (i.e. approving nuclear disarmament) and an anti-American. His instincts place state control over the market, workers over employers and non-intervention over military action. Only on Brexit is (he) vague’. The security establishment is more outspoken. On Sunday 24 November, Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), as reported in the Mail on Sunday, opines that the Labour leader would pose a ‘present danger to our country’ as he would be able to access ‘top-secret documents’. His level of risk is established by his ‘involvement with extremist movements, his admiration for Eastern bloc countries during the Cold War…’ which ‘make him unfit for the highest office in the land’.

The Labour Party Election Manifesto 2019

The renewed media attention has been orchestrated by the Labour Party Election Manifesto published on 21 November. The Manifesto includes many traditional social-democratic policies: spending more on health services, raising the minimum wage (to 10 pounds (13 US dollars) per hour), raising health standards by providing more free services, providing free higher education, bringing back under state management services outsourced to the private sector, reducing the working week to 32 hours, keeping the minimum pension age at 66 years, reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2030. More radical socialist proposals include the re-nationalisation of the major energy companies delivering electricity, gas and water, the railways and buses, the post-office; and internet broadband would be brought into state ownership. Large firms would have to ensure that 10 per of their shares were owned collectively by employees – giving them a share of profits, capped at 500 pounds per annum. A major difference to previous New Labour and current Conservative plans is a massive increase of public expenditure amounting to 83 billion pounds ($107 billion) per year; Conservative plans propose an increase of only 3 billion pounds per year. The burden of financing these proposals would fall on the higher-level income-tax payers (those earning over 80,000 pounds ($103,000) per year), increased taxes on corporations and capital gains taxes.

Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy proposals however are the least divisive. The Party Manifesto promises to move to a less interventionist foreign policy and certainly one not closely tied to the USA. A ‘War Powers’ Act’ is promised to ensure Parliamentary control over military action. If in power, the Party promises to increase funding for ‘peacekeeping’ operations. Notably, there will be no change of the UKs commitments to NATO; the Trident nuclear deterrent will be renewed. Moreover, the UK guarantees to maintain defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP.

Does the Labour Party Constitute a ‘threat’?

What then is the upshot of the Labour Party’s proposals and does Jeremy Corbyn constitute a ‘threat’? The answer is: certainly not. The most important proposals in Labour Party policy are in infrastructure development and social welfare policies. State regulation of natural monopolies will be strengthened and will replace the regulative bodies (such as Ofwat) which already exist. The state will assume greater responsibilities for social welfare – particularly education, health care and provision for old age. Foreign policy is likely to change very little; at best Corbyn will act with caution. This is a social-democratic programme, not a socialist one. There is no mention of public ownership of the most profitable branches of the financial sector (foreign exchange or investment banks), or money-making companies in pharmaceuticals, or airports; no mention is made of taking over foreign companies that threaten to locate outside the UK. On foreign affairs, there is hardly any change. No UK government will lightly embark on foreign wars. While Corbyn and Seumas Milne (one of his top advisers) might take a more sceptical view of Russia’s ‘meddling’ in UK affairs, it is unlikely that a Labour government would be much different in its policy to either Russia or China from the present Conservative one.

Jeremy Corbyn is only one part of the Labour leadership. He is constrained by internal interests, such as the trade unions and factions of New Labour members of Parliament. He also cannot afford to destabilise the ‘deep state’ – interests in the civil service and security and military apparatuses – and entrenched interests such as corporate capital, the financial sector (including the Bank of England), the media, established academia and he has shown reluctance to criticise publicly the monarchy (of which he strongly disapproves). Such fetters are currently manifested in his Brexit policy. Here he leads a Labour Party which is officially ‘neutral’ – promising, if in power, to abide by the results of a further referendum – despite having pledged in 2017 to honour the result of the 2016 Referendum.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour policies are essentially social-democratic and the proposals are likely to further positive investment in the British economy and to benefit some social groups – particularly students and people needing care. None of these proposals, however, is a threat to the dominant classes who seem to be erecting a bogey-man against whom they can oppose themselves. All Labour’s policies, however, are dependent on winning the election on December 12 and here the Party’s compromise on Brexit may well prove to be a deciding factor in favour of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.