A review of Clive Lewis’ Labour leadership manifesto

By Sacha Ismail

Clive Lewis’ Labour leadership manifesto, released on 12 January, represents a significant improvement from what his campaign has said up till now, though still with significant limitations.

12 January is late in the day, given that MPs’ nominations close on the 13th (and Lewis may not make the required number to progress in the contest). However, it is to Lewis and his campaign’s credit that they have produced a manifesto at all. No other candidate has done anything comparable.

The manifesto is relatively strong in an area which Lewis has already raised extensively – democratic constitutional reform; and in two areas where Lewis’ record is strong but his campaign so far has not been particularly – climate change and migrants’ rights/free movement.

It includes important demands for democratising the Labour Party and mobilising it in struggle, and a strong position on repealing the anti-union laws.

Its big weaknesses, in terms of policy, are that it contains little about Brexit; a puzzling lack of content on central issues of social provision, public ownership and so on; and a surprising lack of material on anti-racism, surprising given both Lewis’ record and his pitch in the campaign previously. Beyond that what it largely lacks is much distinctively socialist or working-class perspective and narrative.

Constitutional reform

The manifesto advocates proportional representation; abolishing the House of Lords and insisting any replacement must be democratically elected; re-empowering local government; a democratic Constitutional Convention to draw up a written constitution (though the wording makes what “democratic” means seem unclear); allowing Scotland a new independence referendum, while arguing instead for further devolution within the UK; and devolution to the English regions. The implication is a federal UK, which Lewis spelt out at the 10 December event though the manifesto does not.

Repeated phrases about “working with others”, and so on, suggest the support for PR (which I agree with) is linked to Lewis’ position of electoral pacts with the Greens and even the Lib Dems (which I don’t). However, this is not made explicit. On 10 December he seemed to advocate a referendum on the monarchy, but later tweeted that he only meant on its level of funding and that he “respects” the royals’ “hard work”. The manifesto does not mention that issue.

Climate change

The manifesto deals extensively with climate change. Its proposals for a Green New Deal include a commitment to the “substantial majority” of movement towards net zero emissions being achieved by 2030 (weaker than conference policy but, to be fair, that was before the Tories won years more in office); an end to airport expansion (which goes further than the conference policy); a frequent flyer levy; and much else besides. There is also a commitment to support for “social movements fighting the climate crisis”, rather than simply waiting for a Labour government.

The weakness relates to aspects of a Green New Deal relating to public ownership and provision. Conference policy for public ownership of energy is missing; so is its call for free or cheap public transport. In fact the manifesto is weaker on this than the 2019 general election manifesto.

Migrants’ rights, free movement and Brexit

Till now the campaign had largely limited itself to (positive) generalities of the kind we also get here: “We will champion the benefits of internationalism, put forward the economic and cultural case for migration, and build solidarity between all our diverse communities through greater social and economic equality.”

However, the manifesto also includes lots of concrete policy specifics, covering the bulk of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement policy passed at conference. Defending existing freedom of movement and ensuring future trade deals include free movement provisions; closing the “detention estate” (ie all detention centres) and reviewing the asylum system; abolishing “no recourse to public funds”; allowing refugees to work; and extending the vote in national and local elections to all UK residents.

It also proposes to establish a party migrant forum so that the voice of migrant members is no longer marginalised.

There are other broadly internationalist proposals. But: strikingly given that Lewis has been the leading left anti-Brexit MP, the founder and key organiser of the Love Socialism Hate Brexit group, the manifesto says almost nothing about Brexit beyond opposing the Tories’ attacks on various EU-linked rights and standards. Whatever policy you think the left should pursue, it surely needs spelling out. The fact it isn’t surely reflects the lack of confidence – understandable but damaging – that has descended on the anti-Brexit left.

Democratising the party

The manifesto includes support for Open Selection of MPs, for measures to create a more transparent and accountable NEC, and “for a more functional, democratic policy process with a sovereign conference at its heart”. The last is extremely important, but what it means should be spelt out more clearly and made much more central, ie we must insist that conference decides the party’s policy and direction. There is also a commitment to a thorough review of party structures, though we should ask why the manifesto talks about a “deliberative convention” on this rather than a special conference.

There is also suggestion of making the party more of an activist movement, including working with unions to organise in workplaces and communities, helping to “mobilise national demonstrations” (why just help? why just national?) on a variety of issues, and supporting “social movements”.

Anti-union laws

“We will restore trade union rights after decades of Tory legal restrictions, repealing all of the anti-union laws and creating a charter of positive rights for trade unions to organise in workplaces.” Bravo. Lewis is the only candidate, so far, to have signed the Free Our Unions pledge for leadership candidates.

Public provision and ownership

There is very little in the document about the core issues of social provision, public services, public ownership and so on – housing, benefits, the NHS, social care, education, nationalisation… In that respect it comes across as well to the right of the 2019 election manifesto. As well as crucial policies these are issues Labour hasn’t but should build real campaigns around. This also relates to party democracy and conference sovereignty, since conference has now passed extensive and mostly very solid policy on much of this (eg for 100,000 council houses a year).

See above for how this impacts the manifesto’s climate change policies. It is also noticeable that the section on re-empowering local government contains welcome legal and procedural changes but not a clear commitment on restoring the lost funding. Calling for greater local revenue-raising powers without restoring central government funding is particularly problematic.

If Lewis makes the ballot, the campaign needs to get going on this!

Fighting oppression

Lewis’ record and his campaign so far have been strong on fighting racism (including antisemitism). Oddly, then, the manifesto includes very little on this.

There are a number of policies on promoting women’s rights, but nothing on fighting for abortion rights. Particularly given that Lewis’ backers include the anti-abortion MP Rachael Maskell, this should not have been left out.

Working-class socialism

The manifesto gives the sense of trying to establish a strong narrative, about expanding democracy and overhauling Labour to meet new challenges. The actual political content of this narrative, however, is far from clear. It is not distinctive socialist, anticapitalist or class-based. The words “class” and “socialism” are not even used; the word “worker”/”workers” only once, in “workers’ rights”. The commitments on organising alongside the unions and repealing the anti-union laws are good, but workers’ struggles barely feature. There is no vision of a comprehensively different society towards which radical policies are steps. The manifesto is left-wing but it’s over-arching framework is more a classless democracy than working-class power. (Perhaps that relates to the lack of content on social provision?)

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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