A pleasantly surprising thing about the May Day Manifesto is that it's a joy to read. It suffers from none of the maladies associated with left-wing manifestos and declarations. It's clear, it's to the point, and mostly jargon-free.
This is as it should be. Published in 1968, and recently republished online as part of the Soundings manifesto debates, the May Day Manifesto aimed to reach a wide audience, a readership beyond chin-stroking intellectuals and academics. Its fifty short chapters cover a broad swathe of topics, from advertising to Third World hunger and everything else in between.
As described by one-time May Day Manifesto Secretary Michael Rustin at its recent relaunch, the book was written as a reaction to the growing corporatist capitalism of the period, and against an internationally focused New Left Review that some felt was far too comfortable among ivory towers. It was also strongly informed by Raymond Williams's optimism about the working class and its development.
The Manifesto puts together a coherent and wide-ranging analysis of the [End Page 116] shortcomings of the political system at the end of the 1960s, and the development of what it calls 'new capitalism'. This is its strong point, and the majority of the manifesto is made up of this analysis. In these sections clarity of analysis is matched by clarity of language.
It sometimes comes across as a series of interesting lectures - and this is the position the self-appointed Manifesto group aimed for. They saw it as their responsibility as intellectuals to 'make the analysis and discover the programmes that would unite every socialist in the labour movement with the organised workers throughout industry'.
There is of course no discussion of neoliberalism: the focus is on the shortcomings of what then passed for Keynesian social democracy. Nonetheless the Manifesto identifies many issues that are still with us: poverty, inequality, media concentration, poor working conditions, politics as marketing, political 'modernisation', to name just a few. Indeed, the problems facing the left's engagement with the Labour Party and mainstream politics do not seem to have changed much since the Manifesto's publication.
The Manifesto is less convincing when it comes to what should be done to remedy the problems it identifies. John Higgins has described the solutions as 'magnificently unfeasible'. It is difficult to argue with that assessment - which stands in sharp contrast to the criticism the manifesto reserves for politicians and policymakers for their crimes of pragmatism. Though it is true that the main content is an overarching critique of a political system that is hand in glove with capitalist enterprises, there is a missed opportunity here. If a strong analysis exists then it should be matched by workable solutions.
In the short term the May Day Manifesto group fizzled out quite quickly. But in the longer term much of the analysis and many of the ideas found their place in the wider labour movement, including in the Labour Party. They formed part of an upsurge in New Left thinking and activity that spurred on the Labour Left in the 1970s and 1980s; and many New Left ideas on the economy ended up in Labour Party manifestos during this period. However, probably even more influential was the Manifesto's critique of the internal democracy of the Labour Party: it roundly attacks the party for viewing activists as 'dutiful feet' for election times rather than as contributors to policy development. [End Page 117]
So what lessons does the May Day Manifesto have for the Soundings Kilburn Manifesto? Many of first manifesto's criticisms came too late to influence the programme of a Labour government that had by the time of publication been in power for four years. If the Kilburn Manifesto has Labour in its sights, it is at least the right side of the next election. But to really influence the party's agenda for the next election it should have completed the work it is carrying out now at least a year ago.
Michael Rustin argues that a fatal flaw in the Manifesto was...