For this campaign and beyond, Labour needs to articulate a vision of freedom. The manifesto was a good starting point

by Jonathan Todd

“There is a sort of sea change going on now and I would argue it is to the left,” claims Steve Richards on the latest edition of Not Another One, a new podcast and one of the most welcome developments of this general election.

The guide to this possible leftward turn sits, to some extent, in the Labour manifesto 2024. But, as Phil Collins observes, “a manifesto is only an opening gambit.”

1945 brought a Labour government of bigger and more enduring change than any other. Yet, as Collins notes, “Labour’s 1945 manifesto had just seven pledges. In 2019 the manifesto contained one hundred and sixty.”

What Labour did have in 1945 was an argument about freedom. “For once,” writes Richards in Turning Points, “a Labour leader won a case about ‘freedom’ … It was only through the ‘power of the state’ that people had become free … Future Labour leaders who lost elections might have fared better if they had been as nimble as Attlee in claiming the vote-winning term ‘freedom’ for their party.”

The freedom to be homosexual under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and the freedom to smoke-free pubs with Tony Blair in 2000s are relatively rare examples of Labour leaders embedding change through arguments about freedom.

“Freedom is a complex term, but one that (Margaret Thatcher) seized and defined in her own terms, a talent that has usually eluded Labour prime ministers,” laments Richards in Turning Points.

Isaiah Berlin’s famous Two Concepts of Liberty essay lurks behind these grand Labour and Tory battles. With Tories usually emphasising the negative (freedom from) and Labour the positive (freedom to).

The freedom from, for example, state-imposed lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic versus the freedom to a tolerable health risk – due to the scientific wonder of vaccines and the effectiveness of the state in distributing these vaccines. The case for negative liberty is often easy to express crisply (e.g., no more lockdowns), while being insufficient (simply ending lockdowns would have crashed the NHS and enduring freedom came instead from the collective action of vaccination).

There are only three references to freedom in the 2024 Labour manifesto. One of these relates to “partying in Downing Street while the whole country sacrificed their freedom”.

It will take years to know the meaning of this election. If it is the turn to the left that Richards hopes, then it will take on a meaning akin to 1945. If it is a more of rejection of the incumbents, with Johnson’s partying, Truss’ recklessness and Sunak’s inadequacy, then its meaning will remain contested.

There is a sense that the UK and the EU are moving in different directions, with a Labour government imminent and the far right prospering in the recent EU elections. What we have in common, however, is being inhospitable to incumbents.

An increased willingness to vote for parties not of the traditional centre left and right drives this political volatility. One in five voters at the last French presidential election in 2022 voted for the far left (Mélenchon) in the first round, while slightly more voted for the far right (Le Pen). Reform have overtaken the Tories in the latest You Gov poll, while the Greens, Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway pose threats to the left of Labour in specific seats.

The increasing appeal of these extremes reflects the rise of anti-system politics. This, according to Jonathan Hopkin, is a global rejection of “an economic model that only worked for a minority, and a political system that closed off alternatives to it”.

To not fall victim to this trend in the general election after this one, when we will bat on the tricky wicket of incumbency, Labour needs to work through some version of this political system to produce economic outcomes that work for the majority. In other words, make the system work, if the risks, uncertainties, and false consolations of anti-system politics are to be avoided.

The seeds of this system transformation can be found in Labour’s manifesto. But they need careful cultivation and acceleration. Making the most of the 14 reviews that the manifesto promises, securing the economic growth that makes public spending decisions easier, and responding to unanticipated events in ways that shift crisis to opportunity.

Successfully navigating this terrain will make the current Ming vase strategy seem like the easy part. A Labour language of freedom – communicating a larger, shared purpose – will help traverse these difficulties. The simplistic nostrums of Thatcherism have misdirected Britain for too long – but will be heard again from the opposition benches after this general election.

They will need to be defeated – with a different story of freedom and the substance of broad-based economic renewal – if this is to be the kind of 1945 turn that we so desperately need.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut  

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One Response to “For this campaign and beyond, Labour needs to articulate a vision of freedom. The manifesto was a good starting point”

  1. Tafia says:

    Freedom means smaller government, less government control, greater individual responsibility and less nanny-state, less government interference, fewer laws and regulations, greater freedom of choice

    Labour is not ever going to offer that.

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