The 2019 Labour Manifesto: A Moderate Development Unorthodoxy in an Age of Total Capitalism

(Eastern) promises of transformation

The 2019 Labour Manifesto promises to set up a Sustainable Development Board, a National Transformation Fund, National and Regional Development Banks, and a Local Transformation Fund. It aims to commit three percent of GDP to research and development. It signals an intention to keep as much of the production chain within the UK as possible, reorienting publically-funded services towards ‘insourcing’ rather than ‘outsourcing’. It identifies training and retraining as a vital component to ensuring a productive labour force. It aspires to revitalise car and steel manufacture and declares that the government will establish a generic drug pharmaceutical company. If elected, the Labour government will nationalise infrastructures such as rail, mail, water and energy and (though local governments) bus networks. The Post Office will host a Post Bank that will also serve as a Business Development Agency.

Public banks allocating capital according to a national growth strategy; a dedication to technological upgrading; an economic nationalism in which production chains and companies will be incentivised and disciplined to fit into a British project; a state repurposed to intervene in the economy. Quite a bundle of policy aspirations. It presents nothing less than ‘a strong and autonomous state, providing directional thrust to the operation of the market mechanism’ in which government ‘agencies collaborate with [the] private sector to spur national economic transformation’.

So, it is interesting that these two quotations – and many more if one had the time to go through the literature – are talking about the northeast Asian development experience in the late 1960s to the early 1980s. If one looks in detail at the governmental strategies of Japan, South Korea, or more loosely Taiwan and China during their periods of sustained rapid growth, one will see state-owned development banks, state-owned enterprises in strategic sectors, large commitments to research and development, and a commitment to containing as much of the productive process within national borders. Northeast Asian development models, it would seem, have found their latest home in the pages of Labour’s 2019 Manifesto.


Social justice redux

There is a great deal more in the Manifesto. There is the leitmotif of not leaving people behind and not allowing ‘the few’ to prosper disproportionately. There are commitments to a living wage, Sure Start, free education, free prescriptions and dentistry, major investments in schools and the NHS, and the creation of a National Care Service. There are frequent references to those places where deindustrialisation and neoliberalism have destroyed livelihoods and a recognition of the fact that being in work does not mean escaping poverty.

Taken together as a second bundle, the Manifesto represents a distinct commitment to address the very obvious and deep assault on the livelihoods of the poor that has been the mainstay of Tory and Lib Dem politics. Indeed, the loss of basic social support, rise in homelessness, increase in precarious and unrewarding work, shrinking wage levels, the rise in foodbanks, and cutbacks in social expenditure for local councils have been so totalising and severe that one struggles to get a sense of proportion in relation to what Labour is proposing.

For some, Labour’s ‘no one left behind’ narrative will seem like a revitalised socialism, especially when juxtaposed with the commitments to moderate increases in tax on the wealthy and to deal with corporate tax evasion and big polluters. But, taken out of the historiography of Tory-Lib Dem contemptuous indifference to the penuries of the poor, the policy repertoire resembles nothing so much as the social-democratic consensus of 1960s and 1970s Scandinavia or perhaps Germany, France, or Britain. There is a touch of German co-determination in industrial relations, a Scandi-aspirant increase in parental leave, and a Euro-post-war welfare statism. The projected spending plans would put Labour’s government more squarely at the centre of a chart of OECD public expenditure as a percentage of GDP, not at its high extremities.

This is not a snarky denigration-by-comparison. For example – and closest to home – the abolition of student fees, the binning of the ‘’ Office for Students, and a ‘fundamental rethink’ of what teaching and research quality should look like is extremely welcome. But, socialism it is not. So horrendous has been the Tory-Lib Dem regime that what were once seen as commonsensical foundations for a social democracy are now easily re-inscribed as revolutionary.

This, then, is the Labour Manifesto: a northeast Asian-alike developmentalism articulated through a social-democratic social justice normativity. There is also a third major theme which is the Green Industrial Revolution, but I am going to skip past that and move on to another less prominent theme which, I think, represents perhaps the least impressive component of the document: international development.


International development afterthoughts

Tucked away behind Brexit and over three pages, Labour sets out its international development strategy. It starts by (re)committing itself to the now talismanic 0.7 percent aid expenditure target. Aid will be focused on humanitarian objectives and also on the provision of basic services for the poorest. It will aim to ‘promote fairer tax rules’, and reorient aid around human rights and gender equality. There is a commitment to tackle the causes and effects of climate change.

This is all very familiar. Each of these components can be found in UN agencies, New Labour aid strategy, and even to some degree in David Cameron’s interest in fair taxation and quality of life or the World Bank’s moderate liberal revisionism.

But, there are two distinct statements that might signal some new thinking. One is to support trade unions and reject trade agreements that undermine labour standards. The other is a focus on food sovereignty. The potential novelty in each area is markedly constrained by the brevity of the text. Fleshing these two statements out out will be extremely challenging. What a commitment to unions and wages and smallholder food producers share is an interest in the social relations of labour. Traditionally, international development has been all about using aid to reduce poverty and promote ‘good governance’. These are relatively straightforward things to discuss within an aid paradigm.  Thinking about international development as a mode of intervention in other countries’ social relations of labour – the conditions under which people work for wages or produce goods for sale – might potentially shift the aid paradigm in quite profound ways.

We will have to wait and see if any detail or policy direction is added to these base bones. For now, what is striking about these slender notes on international aid is how they compare with what I have identified as two major themes of the Manifesto overall: industrial strategy and social justice. The international development section easily identifies a Labour social justice narrative, but far less so an industrial strategy.

This is not an insignificant lacuna. The ideas that the Manifesto shares with northeast Asia is precisely one about development. Indeed, there is a strong argument that the poorest countries should do all they can to avoid aid-focused approaches to development and instead embark upon the grand and risky transformative programmes that northeast Asian countries did. Empirically, after all, that is how you really reduce mass poverty.

It is striking, then, that Labour takes on the accoutrements of a successful model for its national development strategy and does not bring any of this thinking into its international development strategy.

There are, ostensibly, good reasons for this, not least that the British government cannot legislate or make policy for other sovereign states. But, that is precisely the starting point for any discussion of international development that might move beyond staid approaches to aid, poverty, and rights. And, to recall the northeast Asian examples, all of these countries did rely crucially on aid and external policy advice – just not the kind of aid and policy advice that fits with the contemporary liberal traditions of aid. This is not the place to set out a different approach to aid. My point is simply that the strategic orientation around which international development is framed is extremely limited in ways that seem out of kilter with the rest of the manifesto’s framework.

If left-leaning parties like Labour wish to think about international development ‘for the many not the few’, they will need to take a step back from the liberal traditions of aid ask what it means to have an aid strategy that connect more consistently to an industrial strategy.

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