Jeremy Corbyn won so spectacularly because he sounded distinct from the mushy managerialism of other Labour voices: an end to austerity, scrapping university tuition fees, capping rents, renationalising the railways, cancelling Trident renewal and rejecting a North Atlantic trade deal
A list like this pulls at the heartstrings of the political left. Some of it is popular with the wider public too, with rail renationalisation the standout example. But even when it is not, it has the characteristics of populism – it is simple and emotional.
But the Corbyn policy platform has more to offer than just left-populism. During his campaign he shone a spotlight on issues which have often been neglected, including the arts, lifelong learning, mental health and harassment of women. If Corbyn can draw such forgotten issues into the mainstream, then he will leave a lasting and welcome legacy whether he is leader for five months or five years.
There is also a good deal of continuity with Labour’s recent past. Across whole swathes of domestic policy, Corbyn’s platform represents supercharged Milibandism: like Ed, Jeremy wants to establish a National Investment Bank, dash for zero-carbon electricity, build hundreds of thousands of new homes, re-regulate buses, hold a constitutional convention and extend free childcare. Even on austerity, their views are not as far apart as they first seem, because Ed Miliband’s fiscal plans actually gave him a lot more room for manoeuvre than he dared admit during the election.
In most of these cases, Corbyn wants to travel down the route Miliband charted, but go further and faster. Sometimes that is for the good but not always, where the practicality of a policy is in question. For example, the Corbyn campaign promised action on tax abuse and tax reliefs on a scale which most experts think is unachievable. And in some areas Corbyn’s policies risk hurting the very people they are designed to help. For example, the charity Shelter has warned that Corbyn’s call for blanket caps on private rents will reduce housing supply and make it harder for people to find affordable housing.
It’s the same story with employment. Corbyn has called for a £10 per hour national minimum wage, with no reduced rate for young people or apprentices. If implemented rapidly this would be certain to reduce employment, especially among the young. Other Corbyn policies might have the same result, for example the introduction of ‘day one’ protection from unfair dismissal and banning all zero-hours contracts. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but they should only be introduced with robust piloting and evaluation.
The best thing about the Corbyn policy platform is that it seeks to respond to big strategic challenges facing the UK, with action on a sufficient scale to achieve major change. But the responses are often flawed. For example, it is to Corbyn’s credit that he is seeking a step-change in public investment. But, while some variant of ‘people’s quantitative easing’ might have been a sensible option in the depths of the financial crisis, as a permanent, large-scale policy it will drive up prices, leaving poorer families as victims of Corbynomics.
Similarly, his proposals for energy and housing have much to commend. However, in places they are also very statist, with little appreciation that such challenges need responses from both government and markets. When it comes to energy, his plan to renationalise the energy grid and the ‘big six’ companies is likely to stall green energy investment. Meanwhile, with housing he seems to see local authorities, rather than housing associations, as the exclusive builders of the hundreds of thousands of new affordable homes he wants to see. And he has rejected any significant moves to free-up the land market by debating the use of greenbelt.
Corbyn also needs to be candid about tax. He has made a series of major spending commitments, while also promising to eliminate the current deficit. Some of these spending plans are very worthwhile, but together they will cost many billions of pounds. If even some of them become official Labour policy, Corbyn will need to publically accept that his proposals will lead to ordinary families paying more. The pledges cannot all be paid for by big companies or the super-rich. Labour must show its sums add up.
Bevan said “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, and in order to succeed Corbyn must recognise there are choices and trade-offs. Implementing all of his ideas at once could significantly reduce the disposable incomes of typical working families. Many of Corbyn’s promises may one day be achieved, but Jeremy Corbyn’s plan for Britain needs an injection of Fabian gradualism.