Corbyn's Labour must move beyond its manifesto

For real progress, Corbyn's Labour must move beyond its manifesto
6 min read
19 Oct, 2017
Comment: The Labour Party's 2017 Manifesto was rooted in social justice, but its now up to grassroots communities to strengthen the foundations of collective power, writes Malia Bouattia.
'The Labour Party I grew up with was a very different organisation' writes Bouattia [Getty]
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the transformation at the grassroots of the Labour party is as inspiring as it is mind-boggling.

The Labour Party I grew up with was a very different organisation and appeared to me - as it did to most politically engaged people in the late 1990s and early 2000s - unsalvageable.

It was the party that declared war in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite over a million people marching against it, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, turning thousands into refugees and destabilising a whole society for generations to come.

It institutionalised and legitimised Islamophobia through the supposed "War on Terror" and introduced the Prevent policy.

It stood by Israel as it launched a 22-day offensive with everything from rockets to drones, against besieged Gaza and killed over 1,400 Palestinians.

It also introduced top-up fees, reinforcing education as a privilege and not a right, as it triggered a growing crisis of attainment and retention for people of colour, migrants, working class communities and disabled people.

In parallel, it formed student leaders who would use national platforms to speak against free education, denounce university staff taking strike action and normalise the crimes of foreign governments. 

Suffice to say, I understood pretty quickly that if you had any desire to support the struggle for social justice, joining the Labour Party was definitely not the way to go!

And then, somehow, Jeremy Corbyn happened. Decades of social movements demanding an end to the dehumanisation of migrants, of racism in our streets and institutions, reinvestment in the welfare state, the removal of a price tag to education, and a more transparent, democratic political system, led to the election of the only leader in a very long time who ordinary people can actually have faith in.

I understood pretty quickly that if you had any desire to support the struggle for social justice, joining the Labour Party was definitely not the way to go

Despite the excitement and considerable growth in Labour's membership in the initial rush to elect Corbyn, and despite the attempted coup(s) and his resulting re-election as leader, there was very little faith in the party's ability to challenge the Tories electorally.

Many, including supporters of the new left-wing leadership, had expected to drop off to sleep disappointed, as soon as the exit polls came in on election night. Yet, what played out in June was quite the opposite.

Labour's promises this time were vastly different to the previous election, when Ed Miliband's failed campaign promised to bolster the counter-terrorism policies targeting the Muslim community, feeding a climate of rising xenophobia by strengthening immigration controls.

The 2017 Manifesto actually articulated the demands of oppressed communities across the country, providing an alternative vision of society, one which did not seek to widen the gap between rich and poor, destroy the National Health Service, or price young people out of their future.

In a new book entitled, 'For the Many, Preparing Labour for Power', I join Mike Phipps, Ken Loach, David Beetham, Gregor Gall, Jeremy Gilbert, Stuart Hodkinson and others, in an attempt to dissect the historical significance of this year's Manifesto. We also provide a critical understanding of the political context that allowed for such a radical change in direction, both for the party and politics in Britain.

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's silence on Syria is hypocritical

Contributors to the book also reflect on contradictions within Corbyn's project and the tasks for broader social movements if we are to stop the agenda from being institutionalised and pulled to the Right. 

For The Many Not the Few was the outcome of a leadership that listened to the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, and shaped its pledges according to their needs.

The presence of an entire chapter dedicated to 'A More Equal Society', showed many of us that the Third era - represented most potently by the Clinton-Blair duo - could truly be over.

Liberation was not tokenistically referenced, but core questions including the global issue of violence against women, trans-liberation and the effects of austerity on the lives of disabled people were addressed.

While it could rightly be argued that political parties have made and broken many promises in the past in order to win their seats, what makes the process different this time, is of course, Corbyn. This is the anti-politician whose track record on anti-war efforts, solidarity with Palestinians, anti-racism and anti-fascism, uncompromising support for the NHS and free education, all prove that the words in the little red book are far from empty.

This is not to say however, that there are no problems. In my contribution to the book, I reflect on how the manifesto pledges on anti-racism and liberation reflect the tension between the new momentum, and political direction represented by Corbyn and the thousands of new members on the one hand, and the old party machine and parliamentary party on the other.

Radical advances are buttressed by visible pulls to the Right. Islamophobia is mentioned but little is offered practically on how to challenge it. Structural racism is identified as a key issue, but Black and Asian communities are limited to categories of small business owners and the unemployed.

These are not simply slip ups. They represent the contradictions within the project: Great enthusiasm for the possibilities of Left wing governance, coupled with a real weakness of unions and social movements capable of challenging the state, the Labour bureaucracy, and the pressure to compromise on a future Corbyn government.

It is to addressing this task, for the many of us in communities, workplaces, colleges, schools and campuses up and down the UK - whether Labour members or not - that the book turns.

These are not simply slip ups. They represent the contradictions within the Labour project

Commenting on the collection, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: "Our manifesto was a key reason for our gains in the 2017 general election. Now its ideas need to be developed and radicalised."

This is exactly where our focus must now lie.

The biggest challenge is not electing Jeremy Corbyn as our next prime minister, rather strengthening the foundations and collective power that will enable him to implement the very policies that have inspired thousands of young people, working class people, and oppressed communities, who were otherwise frustrated and disengaged from the political system.

We have long fought for change. And long may we continue. It is important that Corbyn's Labour Party is not seen as simply an electoral project in a momentary juncture, but rather a point of transformation in the future of this country – in the ballot box as well as in our workplaces and on the streets. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former President of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.