England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Labour manifesto: No “change” for working class people

By Nof A

After 14 years in power, it’s absolutely clear why the Tory party is about to face its worst election result in generations. Public services are collapsing. Councils are going bankrupt after years of underfunding and austerity, hospitals and schools are literally crumbling. NHS waiting lists are at a record high, waterways are polluted with sewage, and that is before considering the catastrophic impact of Tory policies on the living standards of millions of working people. The whole system is broken.

In this General Election millions of ordinary people are going to vote first and foremost to get out of this nightmare. Many will vote Labour, not necessarily out of enthusiasm for Starmer but because for millions, things can’t continue the way they are.

Labour’s recently-launched manifesto includes a number of pledges which claim to address some of these crises. Starmer and Rachel Reeves have given lip service, for example, to reducing NHS waiting lists with 40,000 more appointments, hiring 6,500 more teachers, tackling the energy crisis and more. But without any clear promises on addressing the dramatic erosion of pay and working conditions that has taken place across the public sector, the crisis in recruitment, and also crucially retention, of these workers will not be solved. Even if Labour is really serious about delivering these policies, they would simply act as a sticking plaster for what are much deeper problems. This is not the fundamental change that is necessary.

Starmer’s ‘changed Labour Party’

Besides the mantra of stopping ‘Conservative chaos’, Starmer has gone far and beyond in distancing his Labour leadership from the Corbyn days. As part of the leadership election in 2020, Starmer attempted to cynically win the votes of Corbyn-supporting Labour members with promises to scrap tuition fees, increase taxes on the richest 5%, and renationalise industries such as rail and energy. Along with other pledges these have since been either dropped or substantially watered down.

During Starmer’s leadership campaign he called Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto a “foundational document” that “we have to hang on to as we go forward”. Now, he mocks the very same, ludicrously accusing the Tories of having a “Jeremy Corbyn-style manifesto”. The clear implication is that any serious anti-austerity, pro-worker policies are ‘unrealistic’. He echoes Theresa May’s 2017 catchphrase “there is no magic money tree” with only minor tweaks.

In both the Labour manifesto and TV debates, Starmer puts an emphasis on his “changed Labour Party”. On his pledge to ‘set out the path’ to increase military spending, Starmer has said “with my changed Labour Party, national security will always come first” and reasserted Labour’s commitment to nuclear weapons and Britain’s membership in NATO.

Starmer has pledged (with ambiguous language on timeframe) to “set a path” to making military spending 2.5% of GDP. This is a clear signal to the British ruling class that, unlike Corbyn who was constantly attacked by the ruling class for his anti-war stances, Starmer will ensure that Labour is a safe choice for British imperialism, and for the US-led imperialist bloc of which it is part. In this age of inter-imperialist tension, war and militarism, this is an even greater concern for the British ruling class, which is strongly aligned with the US-led Western bloc, and is supporting its intervention in Ukraine and the Middle East in support of Israeli and US imperialism.

Virtually every Labour leaflet features the Union Jack flag prominently, which ties in with Starmer’s total commitment to maintaining the UK capitalist state. In recent interviews he stridently refused to even consider a second independence referendum in Scotland. This is a complete denial of the right of Scottish people to self determination, revealing how Starmer’s Labour, like the Tories, has no interest in supporting basic democratic rights.

“Pro-business and pro-worker”

The manifesto portrays Labour as the party of both businesses and workers, as if there is no contradiction there. Their ‘Make Work Pay’ paper includes some remnants of the 2017 Labour manifesto such as a promise of giving all workers protection against unfair dismissal and rights for parental leave and sick pay from day one, removing the discriminatory minimum wage rate for all workers over 18 (but not for 16 and 17 year olds), repealing some of the anti-union laws that attack the right to strike; allowing online balloting for strike action, as well as some words about tackling the gender pay gap, supposedly with the involvement of the trade unions.

Under Starmer, Labour has gotten rid of some of its basic pro-worker promises, such as an outright ban on zero hour contracts, lifting the two-child cap on benefits which Starmer called for in 2020, and taxing the richest 5%. If Starmer’s past willingness to drop pledges is anything to go by, the trade union movement should fully expect and prepare for him to drop the promises mentioned above as well.

Even the statement that the “NHS is not for sale” has been deleted from Labour’s material. Indeed, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting intends to use the private sector to cut waiting lists, claiming that failure to do this would be a “betrayal” of working class people. The pledge to ban unpaid internships was also significantly watered down, allowing unpaid internships in cases of ‘training’ and ‘education’ which probably covers all possible cases. Symbolically, when a protester spoke out at the manifesto launch against the dropping of the Green New Deal policy, Starmer reacted by saying “we’re no longer a party of protest” but a “party of power”.

So while claiming the party is ‘both pro-business and pro-worker’, the manifesto is actually aimed to signal to big business that under Labour the capitalist system is in safe hands, that Labour is the party of ‘wealth creation’, ‘stability’, ‘growth’, ‘prosperity’ and other capitalist buzzwords. The word “business” appears 60 times in the manifesto, three times more compared to ‘working people’ or “child poverty” which appears just twice. It is no coincidence that one of the warm up speakers in the manifesto launch was Iceland supermarket chain boss, Richard Walker, who up until earlier this year was a Tory donor. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told a meeting of bankers that their fingerprints were “all over” the manifesto.

Labour candidates in the service of corporate interests

This pro-business approach is also in line with the approach taken in regards to Labour’s parliamentary candidates. Whilst some of the few genuine left Labour MPs were blocked from standing due to not meeting the party’s ‘high standards’, the number of Labour candidates who are essentially lobbyists for big business is staggering. At least 35 Labour candidates are current or former corporate lobbyists and consultants. This includes lobbying for oil and gas companies, water corporations which infamously dump sewage into waterways, arms manufacturers and major corporations such as Amazon, Uber, Coca Cola, Deliveroo and Meta. No wonder Labour has dropped many of its former (yet limited) environment and pro-worker pledges.

Rightward shift

One example of Starmer’s favoured candidates is Luke Akehurst, the director of right-wing, anti-Palestinian group We Believe Israel, a member of the Labour NEC and recently selected for the safe Labour seat of North Durham. Some of We Believe Israel’s posts include attacks on the Tories from the right – for instance criticising David Cameron for allegedly ‘floating’ the idea of an arms embargo on the Israeli war machine. The recent defection to Labour of the former Tory MP Natalie Elphicke, known for her anti-union and anti-immigrant rights stance also reflects this rightward shift. Even those MPs who are right-wing by the standards of the Tory Party are increasingly welcomed in the party.

The manifesto does feature some previous commitments from Labour in regards to trans rights. It talks about a trans-inclusive ban of all forms of so-called ‘conversion therapy’ (which is in fact a form of abuse) and calls to “reform the intrusive and outdated gender recognition law”.

However, based on recent public comments made by Labour shadow ministers and Starmer himself, it is clear that Labour is shifting rightwards and adapting to the Tory so-called ‘culture war propaganda. Starmer for example recently said he would support a ban on trans women from women-only hospital wards, while Wes Steering backtracked on his previous comments which simply said “trans men are men and trans women are women, get over it”.

Visiting Scotland, Starmer made it clear that, on top of refusing a referendum on independence, Labour would not reverse the Tories’ undemocratic ban on the Gender Recognition Reform Act. Trans rights and Scottish national rights are thrown overboard in defence of the integrity of the British capitalist state.

Immigration and Rwanda plan

One of the five first steps announced in the manifesto is the launch of a new Border Security Command targeting ‘small boats’ crossings, which will supposedly be funded by the scrapping of the Rwanda scheme. While Starmer paints this as a matter of targeting “criminal smugglers”, instead its main target will be asylum seekers themselves.

Labour’s opposition to the Rwanda plan is not due to Starmer having any opposition to deportation of asylum seekers, but rather because he thinks Labour can be more cost-effective in doing so. The manifesto talks about setting up a new returns and enforcement unit to fast-track removals to “safe countries” for “failed asylum seekers”. This would amount to nothing but a Rwanda-style scheme in new packaging.

Stricter border controls cannot solve this crisis. The dangerous boat crossings in the English Channel would not take place if there were available safe routes to reach the UK. In the first place, the legacy of colonialism and capitalism has meant wars, extreme poverty and climate change responsible for droughts and unbearable living conditions, which are the main factors driving people in desperation to risk their lives and flee their homes for safety.

On ‘legal immigration’ Labour pledges to cut ‘net migration’. It certainly does not commit to reverse the recent atrocious attacks of the Tories on migrant workers. These include an increase of the minimum income threshold to £38,700 for Skilled Worker visa applicants, and at a later stage, for family visas. They also include a crackdown on mostly health and care workers’ ability to apply for visas for their dependents (spouse and/or children).

Care workers account for the biggest increase in visa applications in recent years. Since the restrictions were announced there has been a decrease in health and care worker visa applications by over 76%. These policies do absolutely nothing to tackle the NHS waiting lists and the social care crisis. Rather than blaming some of the poorest migrant workers for the chronic underfunding of services and the cost of living crisis, we must place our blame on decades of underfunding and privatisations, which have driven the destruction of our services for profit.

The trade union movement and the left must oppose and mobilise against such ‘divide and rule’ policies, which seek to turn working class people against each other. We call for the closure of all detention centres and an end to the criminalisation of refugees. This must be tied to socialist policies which enable a programme of mass investment in services, job creation and housing for all, on the basis of democratic public ownership of the key sectors of the economy.
It is essential also to guarantee all migrants and asylum seekers the right to work, to be paid the rate for the job and to join a trade union to stop the bosses from using migrant workers as cheap labour to lower pay and conditions for all workers.

Tax on working people and the economy

A key message so far in the televised election debates was that Labour will not raise taxes for working people. This was later clarified in Labour’s manifesto launch that this particularly refers to National Insurance, Income Tax and VAT.

Unsurprisingly however, Starmer has promised a continuation of the Tories’ low-tax regime for big business. Labour has ruled out any increase of corporation tax, which is the lowest in the G7 countries. Starmer has even promised in the manifesto that Labour is willing to decrease it if the rate changes in other countries to encourage ‘competition’!

There have been announcements of some extremely limited measures, such as the scrapping of non-dom tax status, which Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty famously exploited to avoid paying tax on her multi-million fortune in the UK. There are also some pledges to slightly increase some taxes on energy companies and VAT on private education fees. However, this is far behind what is needed to deal with the chronic underfunding of services and infrastructure.

Labour also committed to stick with the current Tory fiscal rules, which limit the annual budget deficit to 3 percent of GDP, meaning strict rules for borrowing funds to invest in things like public services and infrastructure. The manifesto also claims there would be no return to the policy of austerity and cuts, which is hard to believe when more than half of the councils in England declaring they are likely to go bust in the next five years without any extra funding. So how does Labour say it will deliver its promises?

The manifesto pledges to introduce a ‘National Wealth Fund’, through which, in the course of the next five years Labour commits to invest £7.3 billion in ‘clean energy missions’ with a target of attracting £3 of private capital for every £1 of state investment. There have been attempts by the Tories to create ‘incentives’ for capital investments before, for example through deduction of the investment from corporation tax. Yet the short-term rationale of the capitalist system means if there isn’t an immediate profiteering opportunity, there won’t be an investment.

State investment in the UK in general is among the lowest in the OECD, and has been consistently the lowest in the G7 since 1990. In real terms, the UK underinvested by £1.9 trillion during the last 32 years, compared to the median investment of its G7 counterparts in that period. This is the legacy of Thatcherism, which meant war on unions and jobs, and underinvestment in infrastructure, manufacturing and skills, leaving the UK as a low wage economy and in the weakest position amongst other powerful capitalist states. Labour’s promise to reach the highest sustained growth in the G7 countries is nothing more than an empty slogan.

We cannot leave the main levers of the economy in the hands of the capitalist class – they have led our planet to the verge of destruction. In reality, we face a choice between socialism, where production is democratically planned in the interests of the working class, or the worsening chaos and crisis of an unplanned profit system.

Labour will govern in the interests of the system

There is no doubt that Labour in government will act in the interests of the establishment, just as they have in opposition under Keir Starmer’s leadership. They are likely to gain a large majority due to the widespread and well-deserved hatred of the Tories. However there is no strong endorsement from the working class of the policies outlined in Labour’s manifesto, which is unashamedly pro-business. We want an end not just to the Tories, but to Tory policies.

Whilst we should all celebrate at the demise of the Tories, we need to prepare to fight Starmers’ Labour government in our workplaces, universities, schools and communities, and begin the struggle for the working class to have our own political organisation to fight for the socialist change we so desperately need.

 

Socialist Alternative stands for:

  • Secure jobs paid a real living wage – scrap zero-hour contracts. For a £20 minimum wage alongside an above-inflation pay rise for all workers, tied to inflation. For fully paid sick leave, pensions and holiday pay for all. 
  • The right to organise. Scrap all draconian anti-trade union and anti-protest legislation. Defend and restore collective bargaining.
  • Benefits that reflect the real cost of living. Scrap benefit sanctions. For job creation and the right to work for all who can.
  • Ending the big rent rip-off – for rent control to bring down rents. Fight for immediate steps to make housing safe – including treating damp and mould, replacing dangerous cladding and installing decent insulation.
  • Mass council house building to provide high quality, actually affordable, green housing based on the needs of working-class families.
  • Saving our NHS. Stop the sell-off, stop all NHS cuts! 
  • Solidarity with refugees. Resist racism, no to divide and rule.
  • Accessible, trans-inclusive healthcare as part of a fully-funded and trained NHS.
  • Nationalise the big polluters, starting with the energy companies, under democratic workers’ control for just transition – safeguarding existing jobs and creating mil- lions more in the process.
  • Take the wealth off the 1%. Nationalise the major banks and monopolies dominating the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management.
  • A socialist world, free from war, poverty, exploitation and oppression.

 

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