Jeremy Corbyn (JC) has said that if elected he would want to see the Labour Party democratically develop policies rather than impose his own, and that perhaps means that the policies he has proposed during the leadership campaign are less significant than should be assumed. Nevertheless, because what he has said has helped to inspire huge attendances at meetings and make him the front runner in the leadership contest it is obviously worthwhile to examine the policies he has proposed and what overall they represent.
It has to be said that these policies are not a blueprint for socialism. In fact they remain firmly within a social democratic framework, and reflect what was the norm in the period from 1945 to the early 80s. Indeed, a recent article on Left Futures has suggested that the policies of the SDP that broke away from Labour to the right in 1981 were to the left of what Corbyn is offering today. Why then is Corbynism being seen as something almost revolutionary, both by its right wing opponents and its numerous fervent supporters.
The answer surely is the extent to which the norm has moved rightwards, so that what was commonplace fifty years ago appears extreme today. Thatcherism begat Blairism, which saw no place for even the mildest form of social democracy, which Blair makes clear in his first criticism of Corbyn, where he says that even if Corbyn was to win it would be wrong to do so with his policies.
But in fact the move back towards social democracy began in a limited way under Ed Miliband and is contained in various parts of the recent manifesto, which included the following commitments which are also promoted by JC: a National Investment Bank, ending the Bedroom Tax, banning zero hours contracts, measures to reduce land hoarding, rent controls, carbon emission targets, democratic reform of the Lords, reducing the voting age to 16. Most of these didn’t surface in the election campaign and many JC supporters would probably be surprised that they were in Labour’s manifesto. Measures not mentioned by JC but in Labour’s manifesto include protecting agency workers, neighbourhood policing and, strangely, greater tenant security based on three year leases.
So let’s look at the JC proposals. Firstly , and most importantly, the economy. Here huge savings on business subsidies, higher taxes for big business and the better off and much more work in tackling tax evasion and avoidance are matched by a significant stimulus in the shape of ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, channelled through a National Investment Bank, for housing, infrastructure and digital technology, and helped by a £10 living wage stimulus. However, there is, surprisingly, no mention of breaking up or exerting greater control over the big banks which even found its way into an earlier version of Labour’s manifesto.
Growth thus engendered would reduce the deficit while enabling cuts to be halted. However, huge savings would happen through not proceeding with HS2 and a renewal of Trident.
This programme has been recognised by many economists as realistic and moderate, and in line with the standard Keynesian approach of all governments up to the 1980s. Criticisms from Cooper and others about the dangers of inflation and overheating are, given the relatively depressed state of the economy, absurd, while QE has been widely used as a tool in the UK and elsewhere.
On energy nuclear would be phased out, with the use of ‘clean coal’. JC wants to nationalise the energy and water companies, at least through a ‘controlling interest’.
The nuclear ( energy ) debate has not yet really taken off here, but clearly the renationalisation of the energy companies ( unlike rail) would be very costly and is at best a long term project.
On housing JC wants 240,000 a year, half to be council housing for which councils will be given greater powers to borrow and suspend the right to buy, which will be extended to private tenants. The general aim is to increase supply and bring down prices. Much of the proposed QE would clearly be used here, unlike Labour’s manifesto proposals where financing was ambiguous, although tenant security was a stronger feature which JC doesn’t mention.
Free higher education is the major education policy, along with free childcare, the return of schools to local control, the ending of charitable status for private schools, more adult learning and apprenticeships, but surprisingly no mention of the ending of selection at 11+. The tuition fees abolition is hugely costly and might have been better dealt with through a graduate tax.
The railways would be nationalised! At last. A hugely popular policy which the Blairites will continue to resist because of what it symbolises.
Health will be integrated with social care, freed from the hugely wasteful PFI and from privatisation.
Europe is a key issue where JC has appeared ambiguous, although he has rightly called for policy to be to remain in the EU, based on defending workers rights and opposition to TTIP.
Defence is one of the most controversial areas, with the call not to renew Trident. Most of what has been written concerns how skills developed within the defence industries can be utilised elsewhere, but the argument against Trident is too implicitly pacifist and needs developing.
Likewise, the policy of leaving NATO was I think misconceived, although this has now been withdrawn. What is surely needed is to ask what NATO is for and what sort of military alliance is needed. However, JC has I think done well in opening up a debate about NATO provocation in Eastern Europe and foreign policy generally.
There is no mention of PR, and although this is not at the moment politically significant it does in my view need considering.
Overall JC’s policies are within a social democratic tradition and build on the limited start made in Labour’s manifesto, although without opposing austerity this inevitably did not attract the support that it might have done.
Let us hope that the huge support for and interest shown in JC’s proposals engenders a continuing and wider debate that lays the basis for a successful challenge to the Tories in 2020 or possibly before.