How to make the world a better place
As a 24-year-old Cambridge academic, I was lucky enough to be involved in the writing of the May Day Manifesto of 1967. It was a genuinely collaborative project among a range of leftwing intellectuals of the day, a bunch of whom descended on Raymond Williams’s cottage outside Cambridge to cobble together a powerful indictment of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. EP Thompson scribbled away in one corner of the living room, Stuart Hall discussed neocolonialism in another, while Ralph Miliband phoned in from the LSE. The general air was one of tweeds and pipe smoke. There were no women, a fact that even the most dedicated militant of the day would not have found in the least strange.
It would be hard to muster such an impressive bunch of socialist minds today. The intellectual left is thinner on the ground than it was. We have lost almost all the leading figures of that historical moment – though lost them to death rather than to apathy or apostasy. The political climate of the time offered more opportunities for the left as well. One year after the manifesto was published, student revolt swept across Europe, while the United States was plunged into the twin crises of civil rights and the Vietnam war. Today across the Atlantic, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
The manifesto never had any strong roots in the working-class movement. Yet it intervened eloquently on its behalf, calling for a Labour government that would work for real socialism. It has taken half a century for that demand to be realised, however partially and precariously. Only a decade or so on from the manifesto, the labour movement was on the back foot, savagely assaulted by Thatcherism and by an ugly new form of corporate capitalism. These were onslaughts from which it has never really recovered. A May Day Manifesto for today, then, would need to put the rights of working people at its centre. It would also need to insist that the UK is never in a position to take any action that might result in the incineration of millions of innocent people.
We will reverse the privatisation of our public services and major industries. There will be no private contractors or outsourcing in the NHS. Railways and road transport will again be owned by us all and an integrated transport system will be established. The Royal Mail and the utilities – water, gas and electricity – will be re-nationalised. Compensation will be set against the profits taken from these industries and services. Democratic control and new forms of common ownership, such as co-operatives, will be encouraged. The market has failed. We intend to sustain the key elements of the economy and the public services through collective ownership in our common interest.
I’m an advocate of the basic income for all. Scrap the personal allowance and give everyone a graduated income. How about £6,000 a year at 18, offsetting either higher education bills, or giving kids the chance to leave home, rising to £10,000 a year at 21. High earners still get it, but it attracts tax relief if gift aided in full. Fund it through an income tax levy and higher corporation tax. Make it a point of national pride, like the NHS. Anyone not in paid work, but receiving the basic income, will have to do Community Exchange – a number of hours a week contributing to their community. The point is to make us all feel part of society, giving and receiving. We have to break the binary of the haves and have nots. A basic income, with obligations, can do that.
The left needs a new vision on race and tackling racism. Step one: take our lead from the people most affected by it. Step two: a total moratorium on giving in to white resentment. No more conceding to the right’s agenda. No more “controls on immigration” mugs. Be honest with the electorate about the real threat to all of our jobs – it’s not grabby immigrants but automation. Our vision for the future can counter the right’s narratives of hopelessness, because the point of progress is to leave the past behind.
If we are to fix the politics, we have first to fix the culture. When people get their “facts” from Facebook, their idea of debate from Twitter, their understanding of human nature from fantasies and their ability to parse a promise from nowhere, you can’t expect them to act in their own best interests, let alone their country’s. A little of the good old unashamedly moralistic well-read secular socialist religion of the 1950s is what’s needed – Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart. Remember when we were naive enough to lambast advertising, lament the loss of a literate working class, and even – whisper it who dare – look back longingly to the “organic society”? Well, we can’t manufacture a togetherness no one any longer feels. But we can try to stimulate the national debate in language drawn from deeper wells than whodunnits and WhatsApp. So free copies of Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, Orwell’s Essays, and the complete works of DH Lawrence will be distributed to every household in the land.
One of the biggest questions for the left today has to be the fast vanishing state, how we defend it and rebuild it in modern form. This means moving beyond desperate defence of each punitive cut and closure to making a sane and passionate case for high-quality public services paid for out of the common purse, allied to an intelligent blueprint as to how this might be done now – not how well Attlee managed it in 1945. For many on the modern left, raised to take key aspects of public provision for granted but steeped in the go-for-it individualism of the last three decades, arguing for a collective anything risks sounding old-fashioned, even sloppily sentimental, in this mean-minded age. But we have to do it, as well as put in the really hard, unglamorous slog required to rethink public services and institutions and their relationship to income, inequality and tax.
There is another interesting angle to this, not touched on by the original May Day Manifesto: the revolution that has taken place in women’s lives over the past 50 years allied to the stripping away of public services, especially over the past decade. This is fast opening up a yawning gulf of care at every stage of life. Raising children is now extremely expensive and stressful. In a development that no one could have foreseen, many older women are drowning under the weight of care for elderly parents, partners, spouses and grandchildren. It is also downright immoral how little we pay carers. Watch out, then, for a new revolution led by an army of deeply exhausted, highly articulate women.
The graph of history is never linear, but often twisted and broken. There is no automatic road to progress. We are going through a period of disillusionment, despair and cynicism during the course of which a huge vacuum has opened up. The capacity of humans to inflict damage and suffering on each other and the environment shows little sign of abating. As reason deserts us and the defenders of the status quo turn their eyes away from the writing on the wall, an old-new right emerges in different continents: Trump in the US and Modi in India.
The mantra of privatisation as the only possible solution to the crisis is still invoked regularly by elite opinion makers almost everywhere. That this dogmatic obsession is wrecking living conditions seems to have little impact on our rulers. Health services are under siege by private companies with politicians on their payrolls. A rational solution exists but is blocked by the dictatorship of capital. To take one example: the NHS in Britain. It’s short-sighted to think that this can only be funded by more taxes. The postwar politicians who created the NHS missed out on an important corollary: a state-owned pharmaceutical industry that would stop the grotesque profits of big pharma from crippling a nationalised health service. It has worked well in some parts of the south. Why doesn’t the north follow suit? It would help to drastically reduce the costs of public medicine. For this to happen the cancer of privatisation needs to be rooted out.
Purple is the new red. The moment is right for the left to champion its feminist credentials and future. There can be no significant improvement in the lives of women across the world unless there is greater economic equality. Feminism can no longer be adopted like an accessory or as some kind of niche or not-quite-political, non left-right issue. Women are at the bottom of the pile in too many aspects of life in the first and developing worlds and the rate of progress is far too slow. Austerity is a war on women, whereas fairer corporate taxation can allow for the kind of targeted investment that can free them from poverty, inequality and insecurity.
Open the borders – to mean, not just policy, but principle or ethic (as in the old, and long discarded, idea of an “ethical foreign policy”). So, for example, no quota on unaccompanied minors and children, no discrimination on migration between Europe and its others – a distinction we are hardly in a position to make given the UK is about to leave Europe. Such a policy would also have to include other political constituencies such as transgender which cross sexual borders. Above all, therefore, it must state its commitment to opening the borders of the mind, and to the values of critical thought currently being stifled by the costly, inefficient and soul-destroying bureaucratisation of learning across the entire educational sector.
If no one’s vote is to count for more than any other, no one’s money should, either. Here is what a fair political funding system might look like.
Every party would be allowed to charge the same membership fee – perhaps £20. The state would match it with a fixed multiple, and that’s it. Any other funding would be illegal. If a party wanted more money, it would need to attract more members. Period. Funding referendums is even simpler: the state would provide an equal amount for the campaigns on either side.
A general election would cost us around £50m: scarcely a rounding error in national accounts. The cost of the current system runs into trillions: endless crises caused by the power of those who have money to spend. Let’s dethrone the billionaires, the corporations and the union funders, and ensure that politics belongs to us.
We shall legislate to make it illegal to use the terms “wealth creators”, “business-friendly” and “flexible labour market”, except in the form of jokes. We shall lead an international campaign to outlaw bullet points. We shall compel all those who propose “economic growth” as the overriding goal to add a statement explaining that this actually means an increase in exploitation, a reduction in social justice, probable harm to the planet, and the neglect or suppression of important human purposes. Anyone caught referring to citizens, passengers, students and others as “customers” will be subject to an on-the-spot fine. We shall abolish the word “incentivise”.
For the authors of the May Day Manifesto, the Labour government’s doctrine of “modernisation” obscured the true dynamics of what they called the “new capitalism”. Today, the modernising centre helped cause our crisis, too, and everywhere we face a bleak choice between more of that cause or its rightwing symptoms. To build something better for the long term, the left should go back to basics, and invest in renewing an old politics based on the thing we all still do: work.
On this May Day – International Workers’ Day – work is different. More of us work in social care or in service than we used to. As economies de-industrialise and populations age, hospitals replace factories. Work doesn’t reward us like it once did, and in Britain we work longer, less productively and for less money than many in other countries do. Technology threatens to eliminate certain jobs, and makes others insecure. Instead of dreaming of a future beyond work, we need now to try to change how we value the employment there is. Feminists fought to make visible and valuable the work that women do in the home that keeps society running. One of our aims must be to make the work of the future – from the care work we’ll need to the green jobs we’ll want – valuable, too.
For the writers of the May Day Manifesto, as for the wider New Left, there was an assumption that certain gains made in 1945 were here for good. One of those gains was that a significant amount of housing had been taken, seemingly permanently, out of the hands of landlords and speculators, via municipal housing. The problem they faced in the 1960s was how bureaucratically controlled this non-market accommodation was, with only the most minimal democratic control from residents, and draconian rules about what colour you could and couldn’t paint a door. In the 2010s, our problem is completely different, because that advance turned out to be wholly temporary. Unlike “affordable”, “social” or “key worker” schemes, municipal housing was intended to be universal, and for 35 years has been under continual attack. Private renting, in hugely insecure circumstances is increasingly dominant in the big cities. So any manifesto today would need to make two commitments. The first is to return to unambiguous, publicly owned council housing, available to everyone who wants and needs it, rather than those with the time for housing co-ops or the wherewithal for community land trusts. The second is to build the sort of democratic structures of collective ownership that the New Left rightly found lacking in the 1960s. Architects, planners and activists will need to think about how to build places that can feel genuinely public, and that can be changed and transformed by the people who live in them.
Comfortable, affordable housing with security of tenure is both a need and a right, yet that need and right have been taken hostage by successive governments who have treated our housing stock as a tool to keep the economy from crashing. The creation of a National Housing Service to meet housing needs – to oversee new housebuilding, planning, repairs and to guarantee genuinely affordable rents – would be as significant to public health as the NHS is to individual health, in terms of reducing stress, improving living conditions and preventing exploitation. It would also, over time, serve to reduce the iniquitous gap in resources between those who have bought and profited from their houses and those who have no wish or ability to do so.
A desire to share a common purpose is not a sentimental virtue. Our institutions are all imperfect but they are the only instruments of society that represent the belief – the hope if you like – that we’re capable of working together. The most important of our institutions is the NHS. We should stop privatising it and introduce a progressive hypothecated health tax. That’s the only way everyone would understand that the amount of tax they pay relates directly to the amount they earn and to the service they receive. We should scrap Trident, mothball the Vanguard-class submarines, decommission the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, cancel the US F-35 fighters, ensure that defence procurement remains on budget and increase support for weapons of happiness: arts, sports and education. A tectonic shift in education could erode our political immaturity, our insular attitude towards Europe and our paranoia about our national identity. It could change attitudes to class, to the state, to each other and to ourselves.
‘Articulating the need for resistance’
The May Day Manifesto was independently published in 1967 from my flat in Primrose Hill, under the editorship of Stuart Hall, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, leading figures of the first New Left. The initiative had been proposed to them by a group of younger activists who had been greatly influenced by them. Its 70 signatories included Terry Eagleton, Ralph Miliband, RD Laing and Iris Murdoch. Its initial impact led to its republication in extended form by Penguin in 1968.
The manifesto was in the first instance a response to widespread disappointment at the failed promise of Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964. What had seemed at first to be a spirited challenge to the decayed structures of Conservative rule from 1951 to 1964 had turned after only two years into a political retreat and into a version of “austerity”, with the government abandoning most of its radical goals.
This was a manifesto conceived more in the tradition of The Communist Manifesto than along the narrower lines of election manifestos of the mainstream political parties. It offered an analysis of the condition of an entire social system and of its potential for development, where party manifestos had become little more than shopping lists of “policies” to be enacted through legislation.
The manifesto, as May Day publication signified, was explicitly socialist in its perspective. It sought to rescue and renew the idea that the purpose of the politics of the left – Labour and beyond – should be to further the long-term transformation of capitalist society in a democratic and egalitarian direction. Its argument was that this purpose was being eroded and forgotten within the Labour party. Instead, the Labour government had become the advocate of accommodating what the manifesto saw as a “new capitalism”, in which the powers of government and the state were to be used not to transform the capitalist system, but to make it function more efficiently. The idea of “modernisation” would acquire a renewed ideological potency in the programme of New Labour 30 years later, from which the idea of socialism had disappeared.
The object of the manifesto’s critique turned out to be more fragile and vulnerable to crisis than its authors had believed. During the 1970s, there was widespread industrial conflict, hyperinflation and a state of affairs that some characterised as “ungovernability”. The war in Vietnam, which the manifesto had characterised as a project of imperialism, ended after all in the Americans’ defeat. The manifesto was thus prescient in identifying the tensions within the “new capitalism”, and in articulating the need for resistance to this system, even though the enormous upsurge of resistance, which begin in 1968, took its authors, and many others, by surprise.
What the May Day Manifesto was unable to do was create a political agency that could be effective in this situation. As a means to greater democracy, it proposed electoral reform, which has still not happened. The political lessons of the 1970s crisis, and the new mobilisations needed to find an escape from its impasse, were learned more effectively by the “new right” – the Thatcherites – than they were by the left. From the 1980s, the dominant regime of capitalism has been not one of technocratic, corporatist compromise, but of unrestrained neoliberalism, in which a financialised, globalised capitalism has met little opposition to its power. But what politically can be done about this system, and where agencies for its transform ation are to be found or built, is no less challenging a problem than it was for the authors of the May Day Manifesto of 1967.