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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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.