Team Corbyn have used the Easter recess – and the yawning gap where Theresa May’s domestic agenda should be – to good effect, rolling out a host of popular policies and securing probably the best press they have received since Jeremy Corbyn took office.
The bulk of the announcements are firmly drawn from Labour’s pre-Corbyn traditions. Action to stop big businesses paying their contractors late was promised in Britain Can Be Better, Labour’s 2015 manifesto, while universal free school meals is based on a pilot scheme from the New Labour era and its countrywide rollout was in A Future Fair For All, Labour’s 2010 manifesto. In 2015, Labour pledged to have increased the minimum wage to “more than £8” by October 2019, about 30p ahead of what was expected to be the national minimum under the Tories. Now Labour is pledging £10 an hour by October 2020 – a pound more than the proposed rate under the Conservatives. These aren’t policies that would have looked out of place under any of the four candidates to be defeated by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2016.
This is one of the reasons why the announcements have been successful: they unify not only Corbyn and his supporters in the party membership but also unite the party’s Corbynsceptics – that is, the bulk of the party’s MPs and at least a third of the party membership.
The party’s announcement today about changing how the £200bn worth of private sector contracts handed out by national and local government is used to transform the British economy is of a different order, however. The proposals draw inspiration from how Preston Council has used its procurement powers to grow the local economy, and would give local authorities enhanced powers over procurement. James Meadway, John McDonnell’s economic adviser, has long been a vocal admirer of “the Preston model”. Preston’s council leader, Peter Rankin, is one of the large number of highly-rated local authority leaders in the party, but is a rare figure in local government: a council leader who backed Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. These are powers that will be welcomed by council leaders from the party’s Corbynsceptic wing, but their provenance is very different from the bulk of the policies proposed by the leadership this week.
The announcement is also noteworthy because it is, by my reckoning, the first policy proposal by any major party that could only be fulfilled by leaving the European Union. Strikingly, the Conservative government has announced the creation of new bodies to do work that was previously done by the EU for the United Kingdom, but has yet to put forward new measures.
But the bigger difference is tonal. Taken together, the policy announcements on the minimum wage, free school meals and late payments have a common theme: Labour will “take money from the one per cent and give something to everybody”, as one aide puts it.
Tone matters a lot more in politics than people think: if Tony Blair had gone round the country saying that the Labour government would brand the police racist, make every museum free and expand adult education by taking the utilities companies, the 1997 election might have played out differently. And as the post-mortem of the defeat Harriet Harman commissioned showed, one problem for Ed Miliband in 2015 was that people simply didn’t know what the party stood for.
Team Corbyn’s hope now is that a tonal shift will transform the party’s poll ratings and put them on the front foot again.