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Inside Momentum: Misrepresenting History, Perpetuating Neoliberalism

The Labour Left claims the current party manifesto is more radical than that of the 1970s. In reality, it is far less ambitious, says Danny Nicol.

Both The Guardian and the New Statesman have lately published contributions entitled “Inside Momentum”, singing the praises of the leftish Labour Party organisation and its role in the general election. In the New Statesman article, Momentum supremo Jon Lansman cheerily asserts that Labour’s present election manifesto “exceeds the scale of the ambition of the two Labour Party programmes that [the late Tony Benn] devised as chair of the home policy of the NEC [National Executive Committee] in the 1970s”. In reality, precisely the opposite is the case.

For the purposes of comparison, let us focus on Labour’s Programme for Britain 1973. It proposed nationalisation of 25 of the top 100 manufacturing companies along with “planning agreements” for those companies remaining in private hands. Along with this sweeping extension of public ownership and planning, the programme included reflation, price controls, industrial democracy and import controls. These were transitional demands for ultimately achieving a general socialisation and democratisation of the economy – a new economic system which would take the place of the capitalist system. Hence the programme’s aim was “a fundamental shift in power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”.

By contrast, Labour’s current election proposals aim at most to re-establish the status quo ante of 1945-79, whereby publicly-owned utilities sat side-by-side with an overwhelmingly privately-owned capitalist economy.

For older left-wing party members, denying the radicalism of Labour’s Programme 1973 may be seen as an instance of gaslighting: psychological manipulation whereby one is made to doubt one’s own memory. The aim is to falsify history so as to establish that the Labour Left never, ever wanted to get rid of capitalism. This technique has been used in the past by the likes of Neil Kinnock. But many Momentum activists were not around at the time when the Labour Left’s mission was to replace capitalism with something better. For them, therefore, the assertion that Labour’s present policy is somehow more radical than the 1970s offerings is a form of political miseducation. The younger generation of activists must never be allowed to think that replacing capitalism is the purpose of the Labour Left: instead they must accept that we are stuck with capitalism, no matter what, and must not think beyond tinkering with it.

Unlike Jon Lansman, the then party leader Harold Wilson fully recognised the radicalism of Labour’s Programme 1973. He told the 1973 Conference that he was against the “25 companies” proposal and that the Shadow Cabinet would veto it when it sat down with the NEC to draw up Labour’s manifesto. Wilson’s veto prompted the formation of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the adoption of mandatory reselection of Labour MPs, and the widening of the franchise for the election of the Party leader beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party.

By contrast Labour’s current manifesto tries to ease us back – albeit incompletely and half-heartedly – into 1945-79 social democracy. Doing so involves another falsification of history. The Labour Left considered the 1945-79 consensus profoundly unsatisfactory. It was a compromise between classes which delivered increased living standards for working-class people, but within the limits set by the interests of the capitalist class. When rising wages and expectations created a crisis of profitability in the mid-1970s, capital went on strike, and the state took measures to appease it. In the late 1970s, the postwar compromise collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions – after waves of Labour cuts, Labour wage restraint, Labour’s agreement with the International Monetary Fund to impose structural adjustment, and industrial action against a Labour government – ushering in decades of neoliberalism. The very fact that Lansman, Corbyn and others came into political activity to fight these developments is now conveniently written out of history.

Crucially, re-establishing the settlement of 1945-79 is not even possible. It came into existence because private enterprise was in a profoundly weakened state after the Second World War. This is not the case today. Not least, private enterprise is now cocooned from democracy by a powerful body of international and supranational law, including that of the European Union. Indeed, the EU’s liberalisation directives target precisely the “threat” of the public utilities nationalisation which Labour is pushing. These directives, which cannot be repealed by the British parliament, enforce the operation of markets in the utilities sectors. 1945-style sectoral nationalisation is therefore forbidden. At best, a publicly-owned company can vie with other firms in the sector – as long as the state gives it no special treatment (see Proposal #2 – Quit the Single Market and Analysis #33 - Nationalisation and the fraud of “Remain and Reform”).

Yet in the New Statesman piece Jon Lansman makes clear that he favours continued membership of the EU: he intends to back Remain in the second referendum to which Labour is committed. This would mean that the manifesto “radicalism” that Lansman celebrates won’t be put into practice anyway. Private utilities firms threatened with the abolition of their market can simply go to court and claim their EU rights, nullifying any nationalisation legislation. This would happen if we stayed in the EU but is just as likely if we leave with a “Brexit-In-Name-Only” deal made between a Labour government and the EU. After all, the EU can get its own way on the retention of markets and anything else it wants now that Labour has ruled out a no-deal Brexit.

Even if contemporary capitalism permitted a choice between “varieties of capitalism”, EU membership negates that choice, as does quasi-membership. One can understand therefore why another Momentum leading light, Laura Parker, can claim that the differences between Labour Left and Labour Right are “not the Grand Canyon-sized chasms that people think they are”. She is right: with the dead weight of the EU albatross around its neck, the Labour Left would have no choice but to preside over the very neoliberalism it claims to reject, making the practical difference between Labour Left and Labour Right entirely illusory.

Danny Nicol is professor of public law at the University of Westminster and author of The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism (Oxford: Hart, 2010).

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