Labour Party conference Labour Party Conference, 2019. Photo: Harry Sheppard

Policy, however good, isn’t enough to win a general election, argues John Rees

There is no doubt about it, Labour have come out with some strong policy announcements during the election campaign.

‘Broadband communism’ has probably had the most impact on the election debate. That’s because unlike other nationalisations proposed by Labour it isn’t simply a matter of taking privatised utilities back into public ownership but of creating new infrastructure by state investment.

The private sector has been so woefully inadequate in developing broadband provision that the new policy proved popular with 62% of the electorate while only 22% were opposed, according to a YouGov poll.

More generally, Labour’s commitment to a market-free NHS, free dental check ups, and to the Royal Mail, rail and water companies coming back into public ownership are all welcome and in line with what opinion polls show that voters want.

No doubt Labour’s manifesto, unveiled this week, will be as, if not more, radical than the 2017 manifesto. Although there also looks as if some of the more radical policies favoured by Labour’s membership, like the abolition of private schools, or the repeal of all Tory anti-union laws, will not be part of Labour’s election pledges.

The unwarranted and unprincipled intervention of Unite’s Len McClusky may succeed in watering down Labour’s conference decision to widen its defence of free movement for migrants.

But when all is said and done, Labour will be presenting to the electorate one of, if not the most, radical manifesto that any major political party has ever produced.

So far, so good. But how far can good policy alone get you in terms of winning an election?

Many in Labour obviously put great store by policy. As they plough relentlessly through the pre-prepared grid of policy announcements, almost irrespective of any wider political developments, it’s clear that they expect this to be the conveyor belt down which voters are delivered to the Labour camp.

But are they right, or are they failing prey to the rationalist error?

The rationalist error 

There is a view of politics, electoral politics especially, which goes like this: voters, like consumers in the free market economic theory, are to be seen as atomised, autonomous units making rational choices about the plethora of policy alternatives placed before them.

In the civic society so constructed, the theory goes, the political party likely to gain most votes will be that which offer voters the most beneficial alternatives.

Despite the obviously threadbare nature of this theory it still underpins a lot of liberal thinking and for a while even became a fashion on the academic left with so-called ‘rational choice Marxism’.

The major, though far from the only, fault with this theory is that it takes no account of inequalities in power and wealth. There is no way in which this theory can sensibly explain outcomes determined by, for instance, the huge concentrated power to shape voters perceptions that the modern mass media and newspaper corporations have at their disposal.

Neither is it able to deal with the effect of collective organisation: the fact that Labour Party has half a million members, or that is supported by a trade union movement with 6 million members. If these factors appear at all in this theory it is as faults in the system which should be eradicated in order to allow the single, isolated, citizen-voter to freely exercise their rational choice between competing policy alternatives.

It should be obvious that Labour strategists would do well to ignore this theory and to widen their view of what can win the election beyond the world of policy announcements and manifesto commitments.

The question of power

Very few working people take policy commitments at face value. Long experience of Parliamentary politics has taught them to ask more searching questions.

They wonder, for instance, even about policies that they favour, when will this take effect? Will it immediately begin to change my life? Do the politicians advocating this policy have the power to implement it?

If they do not get good answers to these questions they may not even vote at all, or not vote for parties that advocate policies of which they approve. Working class realpolitik is at least as good an indicator of voting intention as policy preference.

Looked at in this light some of Labour’s policies are simply irrelevant, no matter how good they sound in the ears of left activists. A four day working week? Fantastic! By 2030? In three or four governments time? Irrelevant.

More seriously, most of these questions come down to whether voters feel the Labour Party really has the power to win the election, to sustain itself in government, and deliver on its policy promises.

These are issues far beyond what is in the manifesto. But they are not separate from the election campaign itself. And Labour actually is running a campaign which could partially answer those questions.

The mass turnout for canvassing is truly remarkable. Nothing like it has been seen in the election for generations, if ever.

Labour should turn this into a central fact of its campaign. Why not turn it into an advertising campaign which says ‘Labour has the power to deliver’. A publicity campaign which encourages members of the public to join in, to become part of an army that is marching to victory, that organises voters into active supporters?

And then there is the critical question of the wider class struggle. The CWU is now locked in a struggle about the future of trade unions with this country.

The court decision which outlawed their strike action effectively outlawed unions from effective campaigning for a yes vote in a strike ballot. It in essence outlaws strikes.

So far the entire Labour movement leadership’s response has been woeful. Angry words have been plentiful. Effective resistance has been limited, to say the least. The CWU leadership has ordered a re-ballot, when it would’ve been well within its rights to continue to call strike action. The TUC has done nothing. Labour has restricted itself to saying how different it will be under a Labour government.

There has not even been a protest or demonstration called in response to this monstrous attack on trade unionism.

You can of course see the wheels turning in the minds of labour strategists: we can’t have an illegal strike in the middle of an election campaign. Yet this is exactly the kind of question of class and power which is decisive for the consciousness and combativeness of working people.

It is precisely the ability of the Labour movement to face down such an all-out attack or basic trade union rights that could instil the confidence that the election of a Labour government requires.

Instinctively, perhaps even unconsciously, working people will see that the labour movement incapable of defending its most basic rights today is hardly going to be a labour movement which will suddenly deliver a four day week in a dozen years time.

The class power to deliver on Labour’s promises does not lie only, or mainly, in the electoral field. It lies in the mass power of protest, demonstration, and strike action. Every working person with any familiarity of labour history knows this to be a fact.

Policy without power is just so much hot air. And power is not, for the most part, founded in elections or in parliament.

Labour strategists need to concentrate less on the grid of policy announcement and more on the landscape of class struggle if they are ever to have a chance of implementing the policies that they have so carefully crafted.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.