People powered policy: how Labour's radical agenda was built from the ground up

For decades a closed network of lobbyists and journalists policed what was politically possible. Now a democratic uprising is transforming the debate.

Laurie Macfarlane
26 September 2019, 7.01pm
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is joined by the shadow cabinet after speaking at the party's Annual Conference in Brighton.
Image: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

A common criticism of left-wing politics is that activists always know what they are against, but struggle to articulate what they are for. After this week’s Labour Party conference in Brighton, this taunt can safely be retired.

Labour delegates backed a range of radical policies including the introduction of a four-day week with no loss of pay within a decade; a Green New Deal that commits to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2030; the abolition of private schools; a radical shakeup of the pharmaceutical industry; free personal care for the elderly; a host of radical housing policies including the right to requisition empty homes; the extension of free movement; and the closure of all detention centres.

These policies build on an already ambitious policy platform that includes worker ownership funds; plans to double the size of the co-operative sector; a new public banking network; a National Transformation Fund and the nationalization of key utilities. Taken together, Labour’s agenda amounts to the most radical political-economic transformation for a generation.

Not everyone is convinced, however. The Financial Times has described the new suite of policies as “half-baked”, warning that Labour “is not offering a reform of the capitalist economy” but instead a “full-scale reorganization of the economy.”

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Last week the Financial Times published its own ‘new agenda’, launched under the strapline of “Capitalism: time for a reset”. Citing the need to “reform in order to preserve”, the editor called on business leaders to “protect the future of free enterprise and wealth creation by pursuing profit with purpose.” Despite the heretical overtones, it’s clear that the newspaper's aim is to preserve the status quo, not replace it.

But at a time when the scientific community is calling for a “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, many feel that a full-scale reorganization is precisely what is needed. And while it is true that the ideas debated in Brighton have not been given much space in the pages of the mainstream financial press, it is wrong to assume they are “half-baked”.

For many decades the boundaries of what is politically possible have been policed by a closed network of politicians, advisors, corporate lobbyists, think tanks and journalists. But in recent years, this cosy club has consistently failed to acknowledge the scale of the challenges we face, or engage in a serious debate about how our economy needs to change to overcome them. As a result, a new wave of campaign groups, organisers, think tanks and party members have stepped into the void – energised by a Labour Party leadership that is willing to listen to them.

The wave of radical policies passed at this week’s Labour conference did not come from PR lobbyists or the scribblings of special advisors. Instead, they came from the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of thinkers, doers and campaigners from all across the country and beyond.

The four-day week would not have become policy without the research and advocacy of organisations such as Autonomy, the New Economics Foundation, the 4 Day Week Campaign and the Communication Workers Union (CWU). The Green New Deal would not have become a reality without the tireless work of activists from Labour for a Green New Deal, sections of the trade union community, Common Wealth and a host of other academics and grass roots organisations. Labour’s bold plans for the pharmaceutical industry draw on research undertaken by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Global Justice Now, STOPAIDS and the campaign group Just Treatment. The housing motion backed by delegates is packed with ideas from various groups including Land for the Many, Young Labour and the Labour Campaign for Council Housing. The vote to abolish private schools was primarily the result of an effective campaign spearheaded by the activists behind Labour Against Private Schools. The list goes on.

During his leadership campaign in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn talked about the need for “a new type of politics”, including in the way that the Labour Party makes policy. The era “when you elect some all-knowing all-seeing celebrity who sends it down the food chain” will come to an end, he declared. This year, for the first time, this vision has started to become a reality (although concerns have since been raised about whether some of the policies will in fact become official policy).

Corbyn himself will not be around forever. But the tide of people-power unleashed under his leadership is not going away anytime soon – and it is this that may ultimately prove to be his most important legacy.

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