Of all the differences between the two main parties in this election, perhaps the greatest is their attitude to the past. While the Conservatives rely on Boris Johnson to talk airily about the future, Labour has reached back to an earlier age. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have created a manifesto that is their ultimate political love letter, designed to reverse the prevailing philosophies on nationalisation, industrial relations and taxation that have dominated British politics for the past 40 years.
The aims set out in this manifesto are Socialist aims, and we are proud of the word… It is our intention to:
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Bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families
Eliminate poverty wherever it exists in Britain
Make power in industry genuinely accountable to the workers and the community at large
Achieve far greater economic equality — in income, wealth and living standards
Increase social equality by giving far greater importance to full employment, housing, education and social benefits
It’s time to take on vested interests holding people back.
Labour will build a fairer Britain that cares for all, where wealth and power are shared.
Labour will rewrite the rules of the economy so that it works for everyone. We will rebuild our public services, by taxing those at the top to properly fund the services we all rely on.
The first section was taken from Labour’s manifesto in February 1974; the second from its manifesto of 2019. As Corbyn and McDonnell started their careers during the Seventies heyday of widespread nationalisation, empowered trades unions and high taxation why not go back to find solutions from that era?
There are, of course, some similarities. Like today, it was a febrile time with politicians facing challenges from all sides.
There was economic upheaval, terrorism (from the IRA) and the rise of the far right countered by anti-racist movements on the streets. There was the rise of the feminist and gay movements. A debate and then referendum on Europe. There was even extreme weather: 1976 had the second hottest summer recorded and a hapless Labour minister, Denis Howell, was named in annual succession the Minister for Drought, then Floods and finally Snow.
In the past decade we also have seen economic upheaval, terrorism (from Islamic religious extremists) and the rise of the Left and Right in mainstream politics. Feminism and gender identification with the rise of the #MeToo and LGBTQ movements. We have had a debate and a referendum on Europe. Climate change is now a mainstream issue.
So perhaps it is not surprising that today’s Labour leadership has gone back to find solutions that are no longer remembered by most of the electorate. Labour wants the renationalisation of water, energy, the railways and Royal Mail. It argues that private companies are making huge profits and failing consumers with high prices and incompetent management. “Public ownership will secure democratic control over nationally strategic infrastructure and provide public stewardship for key natural resources” as the manifesto says. And who can argue with that intention? The aspiration to have public control is an appealing one, according to the polls.
Anyone aged under 50 will struggle to recall nationalised industries. Between 1945 and 1970 coal, steel (twice), electricity, gas, water, air travel, the railways, roads and waterways and the Post Office (including what became BT) had all been nationalised. In the 1970s British Leyland and Rolls-Royce joined them. The level of bureaucracy had, by 1979, become a byword for incompetence; a metaphor for state overreach. From 1979 the industries began to be privatised, and only in 2008 did this trend reverse when the banking system became partially owned by the state as part of the bailout.
Nationalised industries had another effect — they entrenched the power of trades unions so that they became almost a tier of government in determining economic policy. Their power lay in the right to strike. It is impossible to exaggerate the impact of strikes on everyday life in the Sixties and Seventies: from the three-day week and doing exam revision by candlelight in 1973 to the winter of discontent in 1979. That year, 29.5 million working days were lost to strikes.
The Left has never forgotten that a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, in 1969 first tried and failed to curtail the right to strike. It took Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to pass legislation, and when Labour eventually returned to power in 1997 Tony Blair refused to reverse it. Like Wilson he is still blamed by the Left, but the days of widespread strikes were over and 2018 saw the lowest level since the 19th century.
Today the Labour leadership has moved back to a much closer relationship with union leaders. Len McCluskey of Unite operates as an extension of the leadership. The manifesto pledges to work in partnership with “the workforce and their unions in every sector of the economy” and for unions to be handed the power to negotiate sector-wide agreements on wages and conditions that will re-empower the union movement. The first stirrings are being seen in railways where on 3 December the RMT began 27 days of strikes leading up to Christmas. Media reports of shivering commuters and shoppers can be expected any day now. For anyone from the Seventies it will be a familiar and depressing sight.
However, it was on direct taxation that the 1970s set some remarkable records, which even Labour’s current manifesto cannot get close to. The concept that high taxation stifled initiative and competitiveness was born in this era and led to much of the thinking on reducing direct taxation. Like nationalisation, high taxation was the policy of both major parties in the 1970s. In 1973, under the Conservatives, the highest rate of income tax was 75%.
When Labour came into power in 1974 Denis Healey as Chancellor faced an economic crisis that led to his creation of 10 bands of income tax. The basic rate of tax (which started at £4,500 a year) was 33%. Income above £20,000 per year was taxed at the staggering rate of 83%. That was nothing compared with the tax rate for investment income, which was set at 98%!
This had an effect on high earners. In what was regarded as a golden period of music two of the era’s greatest albums reflected the fury with tax. A few years earlier, George Harrison wrote “Taxman” on the Beatles’ album Revolver:
Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
Cause I’m the taxman
Should 5% appear too small?
Be thankful I don’t take it all
Cause I’m the taxman
Not to be beaten, in 1971 the Rolling Stones, each of whom owed more than £250,000 to the Inland Revenue, made themselves tax exiles and went off to the South of France, where they recorded Exile on Main Street — one of their greatest albums.
By these standards, the current Labour manifesto is quite modest. After 10 years of austerity the idea of taxing the rich at a top rate of 50% is by historic standards not too radical. In fact, as UnHerd Britain’s polling reveals, only 30% of the public agree with the statement that “Tax rates for high earners should be minimised to keep the UK competitive”, with 42% actively disagreeing. The top rate was 60% until 1989 — 10 years after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. You can see why veterans from the Seventies are relaxed about it.
Indeed, they may be onto something: the younger generation is tired of austerity. Among the 18-30 demographic the aspiration to tax more, spend more and control more does not seem too radical. The idea that tax alone would have a negative impact on wealth creation does not make sense if you haven’t lived through the 1970s. Today’s impetus is more about fairness and repairing the creaking nature of public services. Such a policy may even work in the short term, as the public sector expands with higher tax receipts.
However, the final lesson of the Seventies is that once the political tools of nationalisation and higher taxes take hold they don’t easily go away. You cannot turn off such bold policies without the political cost of admitting you were wrong. The lesson for Labour is that sooner or later the public turns. Last time it led to Margaret Thatcher and 40 years of reversal. For Labour that would be a huge price to pay. History bites in both directions.