Jeremy Corbyn’s childcare pledge is a bold and exciting one – with a big bill

The theme of Labour’s conference has essentially been a stick for the rich and a carrot for everyone else.

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Jeremy Corbyn will announce a significant expansion in universal, non-means tested free childcare to at least 30 hours under a Labour government – that’s the big policy headline ahead of his speech tomorrow.

The headline of the pledge is evolution rather than revolution: parents will be able to choose childcare providers from an online marketplace using government vouchers, in a move reminiscent of much of the public sector expansion under New Labour, while the party pledged 25 hours of free childcare in 2015, and was at 30 in 2017. The big and exciting new change on top of that is in the party’s plans to transform the provision of early-years childcare, moving from a largely unskilled workforce to a graduate-led one, with a concomitant increase in the pay and conditions of those in the sector but equally crucially in the quality of the childcare offered.

Universal childcare is already a policy with bags of potential: both in unlocking greater productivity and potentially lowering the mental health bill (the most dangerous occupation in the United Kingdom is to be out of work, with full-time parents particularly prone to bouts of depression) by making it easier for parents to re-enter the workforce.

Added to that, there is further exciting potential to be had in increasing the quality of childcare on offer, with the long-run potential to improve outcomes in maths, languages, coding, the sciences and other areas where British education has tended to lag. Labour’s national education service idea mostly seems to be a slogan with no real meat behind it but this could be the beginning of a genuinely interesting policy offer.  

What’s less clear is how Labour proposes to pay for it. Under John McDonnell’s fiscal rule, Labour must run a day-to-day surplus, though they can borrow to fund investment in infrastructure and research. The theme of Labour’s conference has essentially been a stick for the rich and a carrot for everyone else and one would assume that the stick will be announced in tomorrow’s speech. Labour will hope that the stick meets two tests: the first is that it actually covers the increased costs, and the second is that it triggers a row with whoever the party is getting to pay for it, extending the amount of coverage the policy gets and – in the eyes of Team Corbyn – further signalling to the voters that Labour is offering radical change.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.