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VIEW FROM ABROAD: Labour finds its lost mojo

Updated May 15, 2017 07:00am

JUST as columnists and editorial writers were writing obituaries for the Labour Party, its leadership has come up with a manifesto that has resurrected the flagging spirits of its members, if not its chances in next month’s general elections. In the context of the times, the leaked document is revolutionary in its thrust and content, echoing the aspirations of Labour’s earlier, more socialist roots.

Last Wednesday, documents purporting to be a draft of the Labour manifesto were mysteriously leaked to TheTelegraph and the Daily Mail, both right-wing, anti-Labour newspapers. Inevitably, both went to town, jeering at Jeremy Corbyn’s naпve approach, insisting that the manifesto was pie in the sky, and that the party could never find the money to deliver on its promises.

But Labour leaders, while privately furious over the leak, did not deny its contents. The original idea was for the document to be officially launched on the following Tuesday with much fanfare, and with each item fully costed. As it is, the leak has given the party more publicity, and the ideas contained in the manifesto are receiving greater coverage.

So what are the major themes that have reignited what was a boring victory procession for the Conservatives? Basically, Labour seeks to undo the seven years of austerity imposed by the Conservatives by restoring funding to schools, social welfare and the National Health Service. Additionally, it has pledged to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and the energy sector. Perhaps the party’s most popular election promise for young voters is to abolish university tuition fees. First introduced by Labour in 2006, this fee has now risen to 9,000 pounds a year in top universities, and leaves graduates with a large loan burden at the very beginning of their working lives.

In a speech at Chatham House, Jeremy Corbyn spelled out his party’s proposals to reverse the current foreign policy in very clear terms. For instance, he declared categorically that the “bomb first, talk later” approach had failed, as had the “war on terror”.

He went on to say: “Waiting to see which way the wind blows in Washington isn’t strong leadership. And pandering to an erratic Trump administration will not deliver stability… So no more hand-holding with Trump — a Labour government will conduct a robust and independent foreign policy made in London…

“This is the fourth general election in a row to be held while Britain is at war and our armed forces are in action in the Middle East and beyond. The ‘war on terror’ which lies behind these interventions has failed. They have not increased our security at home — rather the opposite — and they have caused destabilisation and devastation abroad.”

It is early days yet to gauge the full impact of the Labour manifesto, but polls indicate that the policies being promised by Labour are generally popular with voters. The party’s basic problem, however, remains unaddressed: what to do about Corbyn? When interviewed, most Labour supporters agree that he is a decent man, but they go on to say they can’t see him as a strong prime minister who can lead the tough Brexit talks that lie ahead.

In a way, Brexit remains Labour’s Achilles heel as many who had traditionally voted for the party have now been turned off by Corbyn’s support for exiting from the EU. Others who oppose the free flow of immigrants from Europe see Corbyn as vacillating on this issue. It remains to be seen if the new manifesto will be enough to overcome the reservations expressed by many voters.

But what the introduction of a radically different approach has done is to re-open the old debate on the role of the state. Under Tony Blair’s New Labour, there was very little daylight between its policies and those of the Conservatives. In fact, the discredited Blair sought to inject his views into the ongoing election campaign by writing a newspaper column in which he advised Labour to regain the centre if it wished to return to power.

While the Tory leadership is publicly rubbishing Labour’s new proposals, I’m sure there are some private misgivings. The reality is that years of austerity without any significant reduction in the public debt has lowered living standards among the working class. Waiting times to see a doctor at the NHS keep increasing due to rising numbers of patients and overstretched facilities. Schools, local councils, police forces and hospitals are complaining of budget cuts, and under the Conservatives — wedded as they are to slashing public expenditure — Brits can expect more of the same.

Labour, on the other hand, is committed to raising taxes on the rich to finance increased public spending. These two diametrically opposing policies offer voters a choice that did not exist earlier. On foreign policy, too, Labour is seeking to chart an independent course free of the shackles of its ‘special relationship’ with America.

Opinion polls on the eve of the Labour manifesto leak showed Conservatives around 17pc ahead. And it is probable that it will win comfortably as even Wales, once a Labour stronghold, is now tilting towards the ruling party. In other marginal constituencies, UKIP is not fielding anybody to boost the chances of Tories running against Labour candidates.

What is changing, however, is that Labour supporters knocking on doors now have an exciting new manifesto to sell, rather than having to apologise for Corbyn. In terms of energising and motivating a demoralised party, the manifesto has clearly succeeded. Party workers now have the task of convincing voters that they can deliver on their promises.

No matter which way the election goes now, at least there’s a genuine choice before the voters. And if enough of them decide they like the new Labour manifesto, Theresa May might yet come to rue her decision to hold a snap election.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2017