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Labour's manifesto is more Keynesian than Marxist

The party's policies would be regarded as mainstream in most European countries.

134 years after his death, Karl Marx's spectre has haunted Britain's election. Challenged by Andrew Marr on whether he was a Marxist, John McDonnell cautiously replied: "I believe there's a lot to learn from reading [Das] Kapital". There is no doubt that McDonnell is the most left-wing shadow chancellor in history. As I reported last year, as recently as 2006, he named "Marx, Lenin and Trotsky" as his "most significant" intellectual influences (Jeremy Corbyn has modestly stated that he has "not read as much of Marx as I should have done").

But though the shadow chancellor can reasonably be labelled a Marxist, Labour's 2017 election manifesto, which was published today, cannot. Its proposals owe more to the post-war Keynesian consensus than they do to the Communist Manifesto. The document promises to renationalise the railways (as private franchises expire), the energy system, the water system and the Royal Mail - a clean break with Thatcherism. But in many European countries it remains the norm for such utilities to be in public hands. Unlike the socialists of the past, Labour is not proposing to nationalise the "commanding heights" of the economy or the top 200 companies, still less abolish private property.

The party has pledged to raise the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent on earnings over £123,000 (and to reduce the 45p threshold from £150,000 to £80,000 - targeting the top 5 per cent of earners). But this remains below the top rate of 60 per cent which endured for nine years of Margaret Thatcher's reign (1979-88). Corporation tax would rise from 19 per cent to 26 per cent, a rate seen as recently as 2011, and far below the US's 39 per cent and France's 33 per cent. The party only promises to "consider" a land value tax.

What of Labour's pledge to invest £250bn in infrastructure? The total, as is rarely noted, is spread across a decade and would be funded by borrowing at the cheap rates the UK has long failed to take advantage of. Annual investment would rise from 2 per cent of GDP (£40bn) to 3 per cent (£65bn) - the level achieved before George Osborne's 2010 spending cuts. Such a programme would help redress Britain's historic underspending on infrastructure, stimulate growth, improve productivity and raise living standards.

Unsurprisingly, as I noted following last week's leak, most of its proposals are popular. A 2015 YouGov poll, for instance, found that 58 per cent support renationalising the railways, water companies and other utilities (with 17 per cent opposed), 61 per cent support increasing the minimum wage to £10 (with 19 per cent opposed) and 52 per cent support increasing the top rate of tax to 60 per cent (with 23 per cent opposed). There is also majority support for policies such as rent controls (59 per cent), abolishing zero-hour contracts (64 per cent) and introducing universal free school meals (53 per cent).

But as Ed Miliband can testify, popular policies don't win elections. Voting intention is rarely determined by individual issues but by the public's collective impression of a party and its leader. Theresa May's elephantine poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn and the Tories' lead on economic management and Brexit gives them a formidable advantage.

Yet though Labour's 128-page manifesto will be dismissed as the new "longest suicide note in history", don't be surprised if it enjoys something of an afterlife. The party's next leader will face pressure to embrace many of its policies (which also include building a million new homes, creating a National Education Service and providing £5bn a year for the NHS and £2.1bn for social care). The Conservatives have already shown themselves adept at magpie politics, borrowing an energy price cap, a higher minimum wage and worker representation on company boards from Labour's 2015 manifesto. After all, as Oscar Wilde observed, "talent borrows, genius steals".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.