Just when hope and courage are called for, Labour promises bean-counting
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th April 2015
Labour’s 1983 manifesto is widely known as the longest suicide note in history. Its 2015 manifesto is the longest till receipt in history. It is costed and funded, ordered and itemised, and will electrify anyone who is aroused by the high wild cry of accountancy.
Labour has allowed the Conservatives to frame its politics. Frames are the mental structures through which we perceive the world. The dominant Tory frame, constructed and polished across seven years by its skilled cabinet makers, is that the all-important issue is the deficit. The financial crisis, it claims, was caused not by the banks, but by irresponsible government spending, for which the only cure is austerity.
In reality, the deficit should rank somewhere in the low hundreds on the list of political priorities. It’s a con; an excuse for redrafting the social contract on behalf of the elite. But Labour has meekly acquiesced to this agenda, disputing only the extent of its application. By accepting your opponents’ frame, you reinforce their power, allowing them to pull the entire polity into their own arena. No Labour capitulation has been as extreme and catastrophic as the one with which it begins this year’s manifesto.
Its promise to cut the deficit every year commits it indefinitely to the Conservative programme, with differences of degree rather than direction. This means cuts. Balancing the books, the manifesto says, “will need common sense spending reductions.” There’s another Tory frame; the “common sense” that has seen benefit claimants driven to suicide. Whose common sense insists on eradicating the deficit, rather than sustaining public services?
Even the two protected services will decline under Labour austerity. It promises an extra £2.5bn for the NHS, but maintaining standards of care is likely to require about £30bn by 2020. Holding the education budget steady means a 7% reduction in funding per child, as the number of pupils will rise. Elsewhere, the pointless cruelties continue: for example, Labour proposes to keep and possibly tighten the Coalition’s household benefits cap, which breaks up lives while saving almost nothing.
Think of what Labour could do, if it chose, to revitalise public services. A 0.01% financial transaction tax would raise £25 billion a year. Replacing the mossy and regressive council tax with land value taxation would transfer many billions from the rentier class. So would matching the rate of capital gains tax to the top rate of income tax. Yet its manifesto proposes none of this; boasting instead that “Britain will continue to have the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the G7”.
Why not address the scandalous banding of national insurance, levied at 12% on earnings up to £805 a week, but at only 2% thereafter? Why not cap farm subsidies (a power the Westminster government possesses but does not exercise)? Paid by the hectare, the biggest landowners each receive millions of pounds a year in public money: a vast and toxic scandal. Surely that’s where the benefit cap should be imposed? But on all these issues, Labour says nothing.
There is some good in its manifesto. Raising the minimum wage, banning zero hours contracts, repealing the health and social care act and ending the bedroom tax, restoring Sure Start centres, reducing the voting age to 16, extending the freedom of information act to privatised public services: these are progressive measures. But it is more remarkable for what it does not contain.
Here are just a few of its howling silences. Reforming our unfair electoral system. Drafting a written constitution. New controls on investment banking. Addressing of the City of London’s secrecy regime, through which criminal enterprises from around the world launder their money. Dousing the government’s bonfire of the regulations, that exposes people and the natural world to predatory corporations. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground (far from it: the manifesto promises “to safeguard the future of the offshore oil and gas industry”).
The dysfunctional housing market is addressed by no significant structural reforms. Private landlords are merely tickled. There’s not a word about the iniquities of council tax banding. Police spies and the laws criminalising peaceful protest pass without remark. There is no commitment to scrap the disastrous private finance initiative, to restrict advertising to children, to prevent the destruction of watersheds, soil and wildlife by smash and grab farming, to improve the welfare of farm animals, to reverse the collapse of outdoor education and the loss of outdoor play spaces.
How does Labour expect to attract the poor, the young and the disenfranchised, whose votes, if they were mobilised, would guarantee power for a progressive party? How does it propose, while trapped within Tory framing like a bee behind a window, to ignite a passionate re-engagement of the kind we have seen in Scotland? Its appeal is negative: we are neither the Tories nor the party the Tories say we are.
For inspiration, progressive voters must look elsewhere. Yes, the other parties have their flaws. While Labour appears to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the Greens have the opposite problem. But hiding behind their tongue-tied leader are dozens of inspiring and transformative ideas that have far greater potential to inflame public passions than Labour’s dismal offerings. The same can be said of both Plaid Cymru and the SNP.
I understand the danger of letting the Conservatives and their gleeful cruelties back in. I accept the argument for supporting Labour in the 16 constituencies in which a strong Green swing could hand the seat to the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. These are Brighton Kemptown; Cambridge; City of Chester; Ealing Central and Acton; Halesowen and Rowley Regis; Hornsey and Wood Green; Hove; Morecambe and Lunesdale; Plymouth Sutton and Devonport; Pudsey; Sheffield Hallam; South Swindon; Southampton Itchen; Watford; Wirral West and Worcester. But if you live anywhere else, you can vote – without fear of punishment by our ridiculous electoral system – for the party that inspires you.
Why does Labour refuse to be that party? In a country crying out for transformation, for something better and bigger and more engaging than just efficient book-keeping, it could both win power and regain its soul. It appears determined to do neither.