We need a new Manifesto

9:08 am - April 28th 2008

by Martin Bright    

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I have the good fortune to live just down the road from Ripping Yarns, a north London secondhand bookshop that specialises in vintage children’s literature, but also has a neat line in radical books, newspapers and pamphlets. It is run by Celia Hewitt, the actress wife of the poet Adrian Mitchell.

It’s a wonderful place, brimming over with old Rupert the Bear annuals and old copies of the New Musical Express. If you pop in now you can probably still pick up an old copy of Tariq Ali’s 1968 newspaper Black Dwarf.

My best recent find was an orginal copy of the 1967 New Left May Day Manifesto, priced Two Shillings and Sixpence from 41 years ago.

The first page explains that it was “edited for a group of socialist workers, writers and teachers” by Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams and Edward Thopmson.

With May Day approaching, see if you think the first paragraph sets out a familiar scenario: “For nearly eighty years, the international labour movement has taken May Day as a festival: an international celebration and commitment. On this May Day, 1967, as we look at our world, we see the familiar priorities of of money and power, but now with one difference: that their agent, in Briatin, is a Labour government.”

“It is a strange paradox, which must be faced and understood. In an economic crisis, with the wages of millions of workers frozen, the wife of a Labour Prime Minister launches a Polaris nuclear submarine.

“While thousands of our people are without homes, while our schools are overcrowded and our health service breaking under prolonged strain, a Labour cabinet orders what it calls a new generation of military planes, as if that, now, was the priority meaning of generation. Britain appears east of Suez not as a friend but as what Labour politicians call a military presence: battleships, bombing planes, armed troops.”

I have my doubts about the ongoing nostalgia for the 1968 generation, but this seems to sum up pretty much everything that socialists have always though about the Labour Party. I’m not sure Sarah Brown is about to launch a nuclear submarine, but pretty much every other word could have been written today and regularly is.

But who is to blame for the impasse between the Labour Party and wider progressive thought? I have argued in the New Statesman that the Brown government needs to listen to the concerns of the left and not always revert to its instinct to sneer.

But at the same time, it’s up to the left to come up with serious ideas for change. A new May Day Manifesto is well overdue.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Martin Bright is political editor of the New Statesman and blogs at Bright's Blog.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Labour party ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. Kate Belgrave

Hiya Martin,

Surely the problem is less a lack of political ideas on the left than a political system in which they might be better enacted?

There are a lot of good political ideas out there, and a lot of people were rather hoping that this Labour government would make them reality.

Repealing anti-trade union legislation would be one excellent example. John McDonnell couldn’t even get the Trade Union Freedom Bill read in parliament last year, though: he says the government quashed it. The Labour party does indeed believe it is in a position to sneer at the left of the party: its view must simply be that in the current electoral system, it can always rely on voters who simply can’t bring themselves to vote Tory, no matter how dreadful things get. We’re surrounded by people who are having that conversation with themselves as we speak – they don’t want to vote for Ken Livingstone, but they will vote for him to keep Boris out. People have already commented to that effect on this site, and taken those of us who think the Labour party should be punished to task.

We’ve been talking recently here about electoral reform and proportional representation models that would allow not only smaller parties in, but better representation for those parties and/or independent candidates who win some of the vote, but not enough to take constituency seats.

As I say, there are a lot of good ideas on the left, and a lot of good people working extremely hard to try and make those ideas reality – there are good campaigns, for instance, around better trade union legislation, and keeping the private sector out of public services, etc. It’s the Where Next bit that is the issue.

Kate, I’m not sure there are lots of good ideas out there.

I think there are a few issues: principle of which is that, confronted by growing economic inequality, too many lefties instinctively veer towards greater govt intervention and power. To me that’s dangerous.

Secondly, I think you’re right in saying we need to repeal anti-union legislation, but at the same time I think they’re too cosy with the Labour party, which makes their political decisions circumspect a lot. Laurie has written here about the NUS for example.

Are there a lot of new good ideas? The London Living Wage is a few I like… what else?

I agree we need a new manifesto. I also believe that a new manifesto makes most sense if we also have a new party.

Once we have all the good ideas and all the right people in one place, we might then stand a chance of making some progress.

Time spent trying to reform the Labour party from within is time wasted.

I feel the new party route is a little too well-worn. New Labour was a new party within the Labour Party.

It’s interesting to see the Tories pushing for greater trade union controls. This should be a real point of difference, but it seems unlikely that Labour under Brown would dare to stand up for a repeal of laws on the McDonnell lines.

The key debate is the one outlined by Sunny — does the Left believe the best solutions come from the centre? It is interesting that New Labour never really learnt anything from the New Left, which was an attempt to re-imagine progressive politics in the post-war context.

Many of the ideas coming out of London Citizens, such as the Living Wage should receive much more attention, but there’s a big difference between a collection of good ideas and a coherent manifesto.

In the most part I broadly agree with Kate that there are good ideas out there, it is just a question of implementing them.

However, the last time the left managed to get seriously radical change through was in the 1940s with the introduction of the welfare state and nationalisation of many industries. These were massive, flagship changes that affected people’s lives as well as symbolising the fact that the new Britain was going to be a better place than the pre-war Britain.

Something like the Trade Union Freedom Bill, though laudable and something I totally support, is not going to have the same effect. The left could do with rallying behind a flagship policy that will have a real transformative effect on society, and I think that policy should be the introduction of a Citizen’s Income:


The Green Party has adopted Citizen’s Income as one of its policies, and it is for this reason alone that I have recently the Green Party. It would replace replace the current social security regime removing some of the anomolies currently in place whereby people become stuck in a welfare trap as they lose benefits when they start working. It would also pull the rug from under the feet of right wing libertarian wankers who constantly snipe at the welfare state. For decades now the left has been fighting defensively to defend the welfare state, and now is a good time to go on the attack.

6. Andrew Adams

I have always found the idea of a Citizen’s Income interesting. Strangely enough the people I have seen arguing for it in other forums have often been free-market neo-liberal types which I find quite odd.

I don’t think that any manifesto has to be full of “big ideas” like the CW though. A re-statement of certain principles such as support for civil liberties, belief in public services and that not all problems can be solved by free-market/private sector solutions, and support for international law and institutions would be important. These are all things which should be pretty fundamental for the left but seem to have been forgotten by our Labour government and/or certain sections of opinion on the left.

What I would like to see is something which expresses what it means to me to be on the left in modern Britain, in a way that the Euston Manifesto for example did not.

7. Andrew Adams

“The key debate is the one outlined by Sunny — does the Left believe the best solutions come from the centre?”

I would say “no”. Or at least they do not neccessarily come from the centre. If we do not believe that the Left can provide answers to the problems we face then how can we meaningfully claim to be on the left at all?

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