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Jeremy Corbyn's maximum wage law is the populism that he promised all along

The Labour leader first declared his support for an earnings cap in 2015. Why wasn't it repeated?

Even before Jeremy Corbyn has delivered his Brexit speech, he's managed to backtrack on it. The early extracts revealed that he is "not wedded" to EU free movement as "a point of principle" - an unmistakable shift from his previous stance. But in an interview with Good Morning Britain, Corbyn clarified that this was "not a sea change at all" and that, unlike Theresa May, he would prioritise single market access over controlling immigration. The Labour leader's position remains that tougher labour market regulation "will" have a downward effect on numbers, not that there "should" be one.

But Corbyn's equivocations on immigration have been eclipsed by his support for a maximum wage. Asked on the Today programme whether he favoured a limit on salaries, Corbyn said: "I would like there to be some kind of high earnings cap, quite honestly." He added that he "can't put a figure on it" but emphasised: "I would like to see a maximum earnings limit, quite honestly, because I think that would be a fairer thing to do. Because we cannot set ourselves up as being a grossly unequal, bargain basement economy on the shores of Europe. We have to be something that is more egalitarian, gives real opportunities to everybody and properly funds our public services."

Though many thought otherwise, the policy is not a new one. The Labour leader first declared his support for a maximum wage during his 2015 leadership campaign. He told the Herald: "Why is it that bankers on massive salaries require bonuses to work while street-cleaners require threats to make them work? ... There ought to be a maximum wage. The levels of inequality in Britain are getting worse."

But that so many assumed the policy was new was revealing in itself. Despite his obvious commitment to it, Corbyn has said little about the measure since 2015. It was often only during his leadership campaigns that many of his pledges were repeatedly aired. When journalists are tired of hearing something, it is said, the public hear it for the first time. But too often, not even reporters have been aware of Corbyn's stances.

The extracts of his speech, for instance, included no reference to the maximum wage law. Yet it is precisely the kind of measure that Corbyn's "populist" relaunch should have at its heart. It is distinctive, easy to explain and true to the Labour leader's values. Though polling by YouGov found that 44 per cent of voters opposed a maximum wage, 39 per cent supported one (a figure substantially higher than Labour's poll rating of 28 per cent). It is also most popular among the over-65s, a demographic that Labour badly needs to improve its support among. 

The policy is being denounced by economists (who warn that it will dramatically reduce tax revenue), by Ukip, which branded it "the politics of envy", and even by the Greens, who called it "an unproven, blunt instrument". But such opposition gives Corbyn the distinctiveness that he desperately needs. As Labour struggles to bridge the divide beween Remain and Leave supporters, its economic message must come to the fore. In supporting a maximum wage, Corbyn is simply offering the populism that he promised all along.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”