John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and of the Labour Representation Committee
A COMMON POLICY PLATFORM seems to be emerging across the left in advance of the General Election. It was echoed at the packed LRC AGM earlier this month. It starts with the rejection of the austerity strategy of the Coalition government and what has become known as ‘austerity lite’ from Ed Balls. Cutting the deficit by cutting public expenditure in a recession was always economically illiterate. But at the same time holding back wages while allowing the prices of basic goods to soar is simply storing up the ingredients of the next recession.
To the vast majority of people the statistics, seeming to show that the economy is coming out of recession, are so far from their daily reality as to be derisory. Average wages may just be creeping above the price index but the average of wages disguises the large number whose incomes are still significantly behind what they were earning in 2007. The boasts from Coalition ministers that a million new jobs have been created over the last four years give no comfort to the people who are in many of those jobs on poverty pay and zero-hours contracts.
What is emerging is a confident understanding not only of what caused the recession but also who is lining their pockets now as the economy lifts itself from rock bottom. People know they are being ripped off and are getting angry about it. They have a growing resentment against the corporations and the politicians whom they see in a coalition against them. That’s why many are either turned off politics altogether or are turning to parties that are not seen as part of the establishment. UKIP exists because of that sense of grievance and unfairness.
Although some people have turned to the Greens in their frustration, why they haven’t turned on any scale to left parties may be the result of a range of factors. This includes the continuing electoral dominance of the Labour Party that undermines the credibility of a significant opening to the left of Labour under a first past the post electoral system. It is also a consequence of the exclusivity of access to media coverage resulting from the oligarchical ownership of the mass media and the craven political culture of the BBC.
To gain large scale support in Scotland, the SNP has had to portray itself as a social democratic party rather than the traditional centre right nationalist party that it has been since its formation.
There is a massive opportunity still for the left to mobilise the anger and frustration of the vast majority of people who are not sharing in any economic lift off and who are repelled by UKIP’s policies as soon as they are explained and exposed.
What is needed is to solidify the common left policy platform that has emerged, based on investing in public services, ending and reversing privatisation, controlling finance, large scale building of council houses, a £10 an hour Living Wage, restoration of trade union rights, ending the attack on welfare benefits and re-establishing the right to free education. We must use the next six months, when people are looking for political answers, to embed these policies in the general political discourse.
To start this process, the LRC could bring together left MPs, PPCs, left trade union representatives, elected local government members, representatives from left Labour organisations, and key left academics, policy analysts, commentators and activists to discuss and determine the key policies of a Left Platform that we would be campaigning for Labour to adopt in government – and to adopt as base lines in any coalition negotiations if Labour goes down the road of coalition government.
If the outcome of the National Policy Forum is anything to go by, Labour’s Manifesto is likely to be light on significant policy commitments that most on the left would consider vital – not just to address the needs of our society but also to mobilise the support we need to be elected. Many MPs, candidates and activists will want to campaign on a more radical agenda of policies.
There is no contradiction in standing on Labour’s eventual official Manifesto and advocating the policies that we would want a Labour government to implement. We would be simply campaigning democratically for Labour to go further when in office.
The reason for trying to assemble a broad left policy based coalition prior to the election is that many voters will want to know there are people within Labour who are arguing for real Labour policies – to know that by voting Labour there is still a hope that these policies will be implemented. In addition, if Labour does end up negotiating a programme in any form of coalition, the left should not allow itself to be ignored and should have its own policy bottom lines for any negotiations.