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Paolo Donadio » 9.Words from the past: Socialism, public ownership, freedom/liberty (1979-2005)

Lesson plan

  1. Introduction
  2. Labour Party Manifestos 1945 -2005 (table)
  3. 1979: The Labour Way is the Better Way
  4. 1983: The New Hope for Britain (1)
  5. 1983: The New Hope for Britain (2)
  6. 1983: The New Hope for Britain (3)
  7. 1987: Britain Will Win (1)
  8. 1987: Britain Will Win (2)
  9. 1992: It’s Time to Get Britain Working Again
  10. 1997: New Labour – Because Britain Deserves Better
  11. 2001: Ambitions for Britain
  12. 2005: Britain forward, not back (1)
  13. 2005: Britain forward, not back (2)


In these slides, we can see that the markers of an ideological language still resist in 1979 (J. Callaghan) and 1983 (M. Foot). In Labour discourse, the terms socialism and socialist are often ‘corrected’ by the modifier ‘democratic’, but British society is still depicted according to a class-struggle paradigm.
After 1979, the resignation of James Callaghan and the election of Michael Foot as party leader represented a “leftward lurch that prompted the departure from the party of a group of right-wingers, some of whom went on to form the SDP (Social Democratic Party)” (Barberis, McHugh, Tyldesley, 2005. Encyclopedia of British and Irish political organizations parties, groups and movements of the 20th century. London: Continuum, p. 271) .
After the electoral débacle in 1983, Neil Kinnock became party leader and the party started to review its more radical and left-oriented policies. The term socialist was mentioned in 1987 for the last time, and, since 1992, completely removed from Labour dictionary (at least in electoral manifestos).
The old “common ownership” principle turned into “social ownership” in 1992, and since 1997 it has been almost uniquely referred to “home ownership”. Under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, and then more explicitly under Blair’s leadership and governments, the category of the working class began to disappear from Labour manifestos, to be replaced with an increasing attention to the individual British citizen.

Labour Party Manifestos 1945-2005

1979: The Labour way is the better way

(Democratic) Socialists

[...] The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party and proud of it. Labour seeks to build a stronger and more prosperous Britain – and we are determined to see that all our people share fully in that prosperity. We want a Britain which is open and democratic and which puts fair earnings for working people and the needs of the under-privileged before the demands of private profit.
[...] We reject the concept that there is a choice to be made between a prosperous and efficient Britain and a caring and compassionate society. As democratic socialists, we believe they complement each other.

Public Ownership
We shall expand the work and finance of the National Enterprise Board, using public ownership to sustain and create new jobs, and ensure that we get an adequate return on our investment. [...] At the heart of all planning policy is the problem of the land. Labour’s Community Land Act provides the means to tackle land speculation through public ownership. [...] In the ports industry, we reaffirm our policy to bring commercial ports and cargo handling into public ownership.

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 1979

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 1979

1983: The New Hope for Britain (1)

It was the Labour Party which created – to take just one example – the National Health Service, in the teeth of bitter Tory opposition. Labour will come to the rescue of that service and make it worthy of those who founded it, those who serve it, and the patients who need it most of all. It is a commonsense example of democratic socialism in action.

The Labour Party is committed to the promotion of peace, democracy and socialism in the Middle East, and to the principle of national self-determination. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains a major element in the continuing conflict and tension in the region, through not the only one.

Of course the slump can be beaten, if we have the will and the right policies. The European governments which have survived it best have been mostly socialist governments rejecting Thatcherite nostrums.

But the programme of socialist reconstruction outlined in these pages, can be carried through if a Labour government commands the support of the other great democratic institutions in the land – in particular the local authorities and the trade unions.

Labour believes that Ireland should, by peaceful means and on the basis of consent, be united, and recognises that this will be achieved with the introduction of socialist policies. We respect and support, however, the right of the Northern Ireland people to remain within the UK,

The next Labour government, committed to radical, socialist policies for reviving the British economy, is bound to find continued membership a most serious obstacle to the fulfilment of those policies. In particular the rules of the Treaty of Rome are bound to conflict with our strategy for economic growth and full employment….

1983: The New Hope for Britain (2)

Public Ownership

We Will:
[...] Begin the return to public ownership of those public industries sold off by the Tories.

[...] Return to public ownership the public assets and rights hived off by the Tories, with compensation of no more than that received when the assets were denationalised. We will establish a significant public stake in electronics, pharmaceuticals, health equipment and building materials; and also in other important sectors, as required in the national interest.

[...] We expect the major clearing banks to co operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership. This will not in any way affect the integrity of customers’ deposits.

[...] We will bring Britoil back into public ownership and combine it with BNOC to create a powerful national oil corporation with full powers to engage in all aspects of oil-related activities. We will restore to the new corporation a minimum 50 per cent stake in all fields discovered since 1975; and, in line with our objective to bring North Sea oil into public ownership and control, the public sector will have the dominant role in all future oil and gas exploration and development in the North Sea. We reaffirm our commitment to achieving full public control and ownership of British Petroleum, in order to make it an effective agent of a nationally directed oil policy.

1983: The New Hope for Britain (3)

Labour will give families a better deal. Our first priority will be to help families with children in order to support them in the task of parenthood. The Tories refuse to accept the wide variety in the type and size of families. Their policies restrict choice for members of families – in particular they reduce the freedom of men and women to choose whether to work or to stay at home and look after their families.

[...] Britain faces a major housing crisis. The Tories have slashed public spending on housing by half and house building is at its lowest since the 1920’s. Houses are falling into disrepair faster than they can be repaired, while homelessness and waiting lists continue to grow. Labour will reverse this decline. Our aim is a decent home for all with real freedom of choice between renting and owning, on terms people can afford.

[...] Repeal the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, because it infringes the rights and freedoms of individuals.

[...] Our aims in the media are to safeguard freedom of expression, encourage diversity and establish greater accountability. For all the media, we will introduce a statutory right of reply to ensure that individuals can set the record straight. We will introduce stronger measures to prevent any further concentration in the media.

1987: Britain Will Win (1)

That is democratic socialism in action. And just as a family uses its combined spirit and resources to overcome crisis, so Britain can once again make common cause to achieve common good.

[...] Commonsense and the common interest require that the Tory philosophy of selfishness and short-term gain is replaced by the democratic socialist philosophy of community and caring, of investment in people and in production.

[...] It means collective provision for private use. The British people know that this is the most effective way for them to secure their freedom as individuals whilst meeting the moral obligations which they feel towards others and seeing that fairness is a way of national life, not just a fine word. These values are the essence of our democratic socialism.

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 1987

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 1987

1987: Britain Will Win (2)

Social ownership
We shall extend social ownership by a variety of means, as set out in Labour’s detailed proposals. In particular, we will set up British Enterprise, to take a socially owned stake in high-tech industries and other concerns where public funds are used to strengthen investment.

[...] Social ownership of basic utilities like gas and water is vital to ensure that every individual has access to their use and that the companies contribute to Britain’s industrial recovery, for instance, by buying British.

Liberty / Freedom
They are essential too if we are to generate the wealth needed for the security, care and opportunity fundamental to the individual freedom of women and men of all ages and origins.

[...] Labour’s objective is to broaden and deepen the liberty of all individuals in our community: to free people from poverty, exploitation and fear; to free them to realise their full potential; to see that everyone has the liberty to enjoy real chances, to make real choices.

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 1987

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 1987

1992: It’s Time to Get Britain Working Again

Employees should have the opportunity to own collectively a significant stake in the company for which they work, through a democratic Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP) or a co-operative. We will strengthen support for such schemes and consult about the possibility of creating a new tax incentive to encourage companies to establish or extend an ESOP or set up a co-operative.

Freedom / Liberty
At the core of our convictions is belief in individual liberty. We therefore believe: First, that for liberty to have real meaning the standards of community provision must be high and access to that provision must be wide.
Second, that those rights of the individual must, like all others in a free society, belong to all men and women of every age, class and ethnic origin and be balanced by responsibilities of fair contribution and law-abiding conduct.Third, that for rights and responsibilities to be exercised fully and fairly, government in Britain as in other industrialised democracies, must work to build prosperity by properly supporting research, innovation, the improvement of skills, the infrastructure and long-term industrial development.

[...] These policies, like many others, manifest our practical commitment to freedom. That purpose is not confined to the shores of our country. In an age where liberty has made great advances in the world, there is still conflict, instability and want, causing great misery and inhibiting the peace and co-operation which we want to help to build. We shall, therefore ensure that our country has the defence capacity, the strength of alliance and the peace-making commitment necessary to safeguard the United Kingdom, to participate in international negotiations for disarmament, to deter aggression and to contribute to constructing a New World Order, now feasible through the strengthened United Nations.

1997: New Labour – because Britain deserves better

We are keen to encourage a variety of forms of partnership and enterprise, spreading ownership and encouraging more employees to become owners through Employee Share Ownership plans and co-operatives.

We will ensure that self-financing commercial organisations within the public sector – the Post Office is a prime example – are given greater commercial freedom to make the most of new opportunities.

Our policies include greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside. We will not, however, permit any abuse of a right to greater access

Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions. The Scott Report on arms to Iraq revealed Conservative abuses of power. We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act, leading to more open government, and an independent National Statistical Service.

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 1997

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 1997

2001: Ambitions for Britain

Our aim is to put more wealth in the hands of more people. That is why we will keep mortgage rates as low as possible, ensure competition keeps down household bills, support savings and share ownership

New Labour believes in renewing a public service ethic by giving frontline staff new freedoms to respond to public needs.

[...] We will direct more money to headteachers, more freedom for successful schools.

[...] We are committed to encouraging universal observance of human rights. Governments that are democratically elected will be firmer allies for peace; open societies that respect individual freedom will be more reliable trade partners.

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 2001

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 2001

2005: Britain forward, not back (1)

Going forward instead to an opportunity economy, spreading prosperity through high employment and welfare reform, spreading opportunity through widening access to university and training, spreading ownership through the Child Trust Fund and expanding homeownership.

Increasing home ownership
A decent home is crucial to family well-being. Homeownership has increased by over one million with Labour and by the end of our third term we aim for it to have risen by another million to two million.

New opportunities for communities to assume greater responsibility or even ownership of community assets like village halls, community centres, libraries or recreational facilities.

Front Cover of the Labour Party  Manifesto, 2005

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 2005

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 2005

2005: Britain forward, not back (2)

Freedom / Liberty
The modern world offers freedoms and opportunities unheralded a generation ago. But with new freedoms come new fears and threats to our security. Our progressive case is that to counter these threats we need strong communities built on mutual respect and the rule of law.

Tough action to combat international terrorism
We know that there are people already in the country and who seek to enter the United Kingdom who want to attack our way of life. Our liberties are prized but so is our security.

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 2005

Front Cover of the Labour Party 
Manifesto, 2005

Front Cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, 2005

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