The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part Two

The following is the second of a two-part series of posts, providing a critical assessment of some of the views expressed in the 2019 British Labour Party’s Manifesto, It’s Time For Real Change.

The section on public services is typical of the social-reformist or social-democratic left: what is needed is mainly a quantitative expansion of existing conditions rather than a qualitative change in such conditions. For example, in education it is proposed (page 38):

We will reverse cuts to Sure Start and create a new service, Sure Start Plus,
with enough centres to provide a genuinely universal service, available
in all communities, focused on the under-2s.

Labour will radically reform early years provision, with a two-term vision
to make high-quality early years education available for every child.

This is the dream of all social democrats–provision of equal opportunity (especially in education), so that all can compete on an even-level ground. Of course, such competition will lead to inequality, but such inequality, it is implied, is healthy and justified.

Nowhere does the Manifesto address the question of whether the education system itself is adequate to the task of providing quality education on a different basis than the typical academic curriculum. Indeed, in a typical reformist fashion, it proposes to merely add on to the existing curriculum arts and other programs to supplement the existing curriculum (page 39):

The narrowing curriculum is denying many children access to modern languages, arts and music, or technical and engineering skills that will be essential in a world shaped by climate change.

The proposed educational system might then look like what the Chicago Teachers’ Union proposed–an inadequate model for the educational needs of students (see my publication “A Deweyan Review of The Chicago Teachers’ Union’s Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, found on the Publications and Writings link on this blog).

On the issue of social justice, the Manifesto is vague and contradictory. It states (page 64):

For Labour, the true measure of fairness is not social mobility but social justice.

Implicit in the notion of social mobility is the idea that poverty and inequality are acceptable provided some people can climb the social ladder.

Social justice, on the other hand, demands that we end poverty, reduce inequality and create a society in which the conditions for a fulfilling life are available to everyone.

It is claimed that it is possible to end poverty. What is meant by poverty remains unclear. It probably is measured by level of income, with those below a certain level of income being in a state of poverty and those above it not being in a state of poverty. Hence, if everyone had a certain level of income that was above a defined poverty line, then poverty could be eliminated–according to social democrats.

I criticized the adequacy of such a view before (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)), so I refer the reader to that post.

The issue of inequality, in all likelihood, also refers to level of income rather than the source of that income. The same problem arises with such a definition of inequality as the definition of poverty.

In addition to the problems with such a definition of poverty (and inequality) as pointed out in a previous post, the following demonstrates the limitations of the Manifesto (pages 60-61):

We will give working people a voice at the Cabinet table by establishing
a Ministry for Employment Rights.

We will start to roll out sectoral collective bargaining across the economy, bringing workers and employers together to agree legal minimum standards on a wide range of issues, such as pay and working hours, that every employer in the sector must follow. Sectoral collective bargaining will increase wages and reduce inequality. This will also stop good employers being undercut by bad employers.

This distinction between “good employers” and “bad employers” is a typical social-democratic tactic of avoiding to address the power of employers as a class. I have addressed this issue, briefly, in another post (see The Contradictions of Unions: Reformist and Radical Assessments), so I will not belabor the point here.

The Manifesto’s social-democratic message also becomes clearer when it refers to the police. On page 42, we read:

The primary duty of government is to keep people safe. Our communities were
endangered when the Conservatives took 21,000 police officers off our streets.

If the primary duty of government is indeed to keep people safe, the Canadian federal government should commit suicide–in 2010, there were about 550 murders and 1000 workers who died at work (in addition to over 600,000 injuries).

On page 43, we read:

A Labour government will invest in policing to prevent crime and make
our communities safer, and we will enforce the laws protecting police
and other emergency workers from violent assault.

We will rebuild the whole police workforce, recruiting more police officers, police community support officers and police staff. We will re-establish neighbourhood policing and recruit 2,000 more frontline officers than have been planned for by the Conservatives. We will work with police forces to invest in a modern workforce to tackle the rise in violent crime and cybercrime under the Tories.

There is little recognition that police themselves are sources of oppression and violence in the context of a society characterized by the dominance of a class of employers (see my post Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One) for an elaboration of this point.

It is unnecessary to further analyze the Manifesto. The purpose of the Manifesto, evidently, was designed to gain votes by jumping on the bandwagon of climate change, anti-neoliberalism (not anti-capitalism) and the fear of personal crime and the idealization of the police.

Such are some of the limitations of the social-democratic left not only in the United Kingdom but in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

What is needed–and what has been needed for a long time–is a political party whose aim is to free workers from the power of the class of employers. What is needed is a class party that addresses directly the power of the class of employers as a whole by challenging its power in its various forms, whether at work, in schools, in hospitals, at home, in the malls and in government.

What is not needed is just more of the same–the skirting of the power of employers as a class, the domination of that power in the associated economic, social and political structures, and the creation of solutions that never question the basic power of employers to dictate to workers what to do, how to do what they do, how much to produce and whether what they do is satisfactory or not.

2 thoughts on “The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part Two

  1. I agree with your criticisms of the UK Labour party manifesto. At the time I convinced myself to vote for it in the hope that it would at least make things better for unemployed/poor people and also that it would strengthen trade unions in the workplace. Was this a vain hope? If not might it not have strengthened the working class and also encouraged the adoption of more radical manifestos by social democratic parties in Europe (and who knows even the Democrats in the US?) thus more effectively countering the rise of the far right?

    On the other hand, as I now see, even if they had got in to power it is doubtful they would have kept their promises. It is hard not to imagine that a flight of capital would have occurred, as was the case in France in 1982 and Greece in 1986. There is also the more recent example of Syriza. The Corbyn period was a blip in the Labour Party driven by an influx of new members who were able to take advantage of a change in rules for voting for the leadership by giving every member an equal vote. Ironically this was meant to move the party to the right by depriving the trade union leadership of their block votes but ended up admitting an influx of left-wing members who were able to vote in Corbyn for leader. But the MP’s in parliament formed a solid anti-Corbyn bloc – when Corbyn needed to get about 35 MP’s endorsements to enter the leadership race he barely scraped through with some MP’s giving him an endorsement not because they agreed with him but because they wanted the appearance of a real contest between different wings of the party. But the same MP’s would never have endorsed a consistent application of even such a modestly social-democratic programme once capital made its opposition known by going on an investment strike. Moreover had Labour won the election, there would have been a new referendum on Brexit which would only have added to the chaos and diverted energies from the enactment of the programme.

    So I guess what I am really saying is that there was never any possibility of getting the Corbyn programme, modest as it was, enacted in the face of overwhelming hostility from the MP’s in his own party, the media and capital. In which case, I agree with you, the best thing is to have a party which is from the beginning implacably opposed to capital and committed to going beyond capitalism. But how to create a party like this? That is the question. Now that the left is being attacked in the Labour Party under its new leadership, left-wingers are leaving the party in droves. But where will they find a new home? Are they the sort of people who can form a new party of the kind we would want. Where do we start – from theory or from practice. There are all the ‘revolutionary’ sects here of course (as there probably are in Canada) convinced they have the right ‘theory’ even as their impotence in practice increases. Do we try and build new kinds of workers’ organisations to replace trade unions? Or should we try to democratise the trade unions? I feel in a way that we have to let the working class show us the way – just as soviets and workers’ councils were developed spontaneously by the working class in an earlier revolutionary upsurge, maybe we need to follow the lead of the working class and see what it comes up with this time? Another question is the nation-state – I am becoming increasingly convinced that internationalism is the only way to counter the rise of nationalism which we are witnessing in our own time. So we need a party which is implacably internationalist and we need organs of working class combativity which also organise internationally – I think this may also be the best way of outflanking the nation state. Capital is both unrelentingly international and tied to the nation state – if the working class can become an international force it can counter both capital and the nation state. But again – what are the institutional mediations for this? I am not sure.


    1. I think it is necessary to distinguish between what to do during elections and before and after elections. The issue of “voting for the better of two evils” is something we face here in Canada–and I have voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) despite that party being reformist. I did not vote for other political parties on the radical left because either I do not think they provide a real alternative. Much of the radical left are indeed sects that lack any real base or direction within the working class.

      On the other hand, I remain convinced that social reformists and social democrats constitute one of the obstacles to building an independent working-class base. Consequently, this blog is dedicated in part to a critique of their assumptions. Social reformists are appealing because they do aim to improve the lives of workers–but within limits. They will receive the support of workers because they concretely identify problems which workers face and offer solutions.

      I do not agree, though, about internationalism being the answer–not immediately. It will be necessary, in the long run, to develop internationalism, but as far as I can see it, it is much easier to be internationalist in principle but a social reformist in practice at the level of the nation state. Many here in Toronto oppose the oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli state but are social reformists..

      An effective movement will take time, and it needs to begin at the local level while, if possible, looking at the international situation. But beginning at the international level is, I believe, an error. A strong base is required, and that base can begin at the city level, develop regionally and link to more national and international connections (and issues). Our capacity to critique should not be sacrificed for a thin internationalism.

      I remember a “Marxist” philosopher–Robert Ware–who taught Marxist philosophy in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He apparently traveled to China–but had no roots whatsoever in the working class in Calgary. Nor did he challenge any employer in Calgary, etc.

      As for democratizing the unions: concretely, this means criticizing union rhetoric that justifies the continued existence of a class of employers. We need to engage continuously in a critique of union rhetoric that covers up the exploitation and oppression that workers face on a daily basis. At the same time, we need to defend unions against attacks from the right. Not an easy dual task.

      Thinking further about the issue of nationalism: Perhaps the best antidote to nationalistic sentiment is the exposure of the real nature of the economic, social and political conditions within which we live. My wife (who was born in Guatemala), for example, insists that I am Canadian, but I point out various negative experiences I have had in “my” country. What does it mean to be “Canadian?” What of exploitation? What of oppression? If the realities of each nation (starting with one’s own) are exposed, then right-wing nationalism would find much less fertile ground for emerging and growing. That is why social democracy–which often is nationalistic–needs to be constantly criticized.


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