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11 April 2017

Jeremy Corbyn’s policies aren’t that different from Ed Miliband’s or even New Labour. So why is he being attacked?

For Labour's divided tribes, the question is like the Mirror of Erised: you see what you want in it. 

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn has used the Easter recess to announce three policies: universal free school meals for primary pupils, actions to tackle late payments and a £10 minimum wage. As I wrote in today’s morning memo, they tick a lot of positive boxes for an opposition party: they unite the vast majority of the party, both in the country and in Westminster, they pick battles with high-profile enemies, increasing the chances they will be heard of by casual audiences, and they send a message about the type of party that Labour under Corbyn is.

But there’s an interesting box that they don’t all tick: that is, they can’t plausibly be said to represent a radical breach with the Labour party that came before. Universal free school meals were first piloted under the last Labour government and were included in the 2010 Labour manifesto, A Future Fair For All. Action to tackle late payments were included in Britain Can Be Better, Labour’s 2015 manifesto.

The new minimum wage policy is a big breach with New Labour, abandoning their old method of setting the statutory floor using the Low Pay Commission (a tripartite body of business, trade unions and academics), and instead picking a round and therefore-more-campaign-friendly number. But that, again, is more continuity than change with the Ed Miliband era, though the £10 has an advantage over Miliband’s proposed £8 in that it is higher than the government’s proposal. (Miliband’s policy operation was usually fairly sharp, but somehow managed to propose a wage hike that was below what the LPC would have been expected to reach by 2020.)

All of which adds to the feeling that, as I put it this time last year, Corbynism is “turbo-charged Milibandism” or “Milbandism minus dithering”.

Which considering the polls will make Corbynsceptics ask why it is they’ve bothered. That none of Corbyn’s shiny new policies would be out-of-place under, say, Yvette Cooper, adds to the private frustrations of the majority of Labour MPs and the 40 per cent of Labour members who didn’t vote for Corbyn in 2015 or 2016.

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For Labour’s divided tribes, the issue is a Rorschach test. For Corbynsceptics, the leader’s unpopularity and his history of radicalism means that even ideas from the mainstream centre-left will struggle to get a hearing. For Corbynites, that even these fairly middle-of-the-road ideas are under attack is why his leadership remains a necessary counterweight to Britain’s rightward drift.