Much has been written about electability in what is now the Jeremy Corbyn referendum*. When his policy platform is discussed, it tends to be simply dismissed as ‘Bennite’ or ‘from the 1980s’. This is not enough- there needs to be a little more serious engagement with an agenda that is completely wrong-headed.
First things first, even before we discuss policy, there are some seriously problematic associations and viewpoints to contend with. His failure to condemn the IRA, relaxed associations with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah, and naive links to anti-Semites, are enough to question his judgment in ways that, in my view, should prevent him from leading Labour. Corbyn has been too openly willing to engage some deeply objectionable causes and that suggests, at best, a deep naivety. These gross misjudgements are not a sound basis for leadership.
Let’s put this all to one side for now but it needs saying. The broader policy agenda itself is also completely wrong-headed.
Here is the Corbyn agenda point-by-point.
- A new kind of politics: a fairer, kinder Britain based on innovation, decent jobs and decent public services.
A pretty vacuous statement for someone who has built his political brand around clarity and directness. I agree with this statement of course. So would George Osborne. It’s meaningless political guff.
- Growth not austerity – with a national investment bank to help create tomorrow’s jobs and reduce the deficit fairly. Fair taxes for all – let the broadest shoulders bear the biggest burden to balance the books.
A national investment may be a good idea- it probably is for infrastructure projects on the model of the EIB. It is not a short-term deficit reduction strategy. It’s a helpful way of investing in things like a smart electricity grid without loading that completely onto the public balance sheet. A more progressive tax system is welcome also but it won’t ‘balance the books’ by itself by a long way.
- A lower welfare bill through investment and growth not squeezing the least well-off and cuts to child tax credits.
Again, everyone would subscribe to first part of this – including George Osborne. There is no guarantee that investment and growth will lower the welfare bill by much as much of it comprises of things like pensions and child benefit. Besides, ‘investment and growth’ is not a policy choice; it’s a policy goal of pretty much any conceivable Government.
- Action on climate change – for the long-term interest of the planet rather than the short-term interests of corporate profits.
This from the man who wants to reopen the mines. Ok, just pointing out an irony. Actually, corporate profits could be part of the solution to climate change. The key is to create the right incentives for investment in R+D and capital investment in renewables. He was for innovation and investment a minute ago. Now he’s against it.
- Public ownership of railways and in the energy sector – privatisation has put profits before people.
Privatisation is about access to capital markets. Of course, Governments have access to capital markets too. But then they have to divert investment from other things such as housing and public services. There are only two groups of people who pay for rail services – taxpayers or passengers. It’s like higher education – it’s all us or those who directly use the service. If it’s all of us then we have to tax more or cut other things. There are no other available choices. I have no ideological objection to publicly owned railways. In fact, I loathe Virgin Trains with a passion (as anyone who has spent any significant time on them tends to). But it is dishonest to not spell out choices and consequences of shifting ownership and funding. Some ideas from Stella Creasy for co-operative rail firms are interesting- instead of bringing in the state, bring in passengers. Public ownership sounds good but the choice is far more complex.
As for energy, a better way to go is to distribute ownership rather than shift it from private bureaucracies to public ones. Let’s support community ownership, energy co-operatives, household generation (the technology is advancing rapidly), help scale small private suppliers. Use public resources to invest in battery parks, smart grids, underwriting of large and small scale investment in generation. Eat into the big suppliers’ market share rather than just set up similar looking public entities.
- Decent homes for all in public and private sectors by 2025 through a big housebuilding programme and controlling rents.
Fine to the first part. There is a spectacular policy and market failure here. A major programme of public investment is needed and it would be self-financing (rents and lower housing benefit could cover it). The second part is deeply ill-advised. Ed Miliband’s three year rent caps were just about acceptable. But they wouldn’t have achieved much. Rents would leap every three years. Rent controls distort markets and lead to underinvestment. So the second half of the pledge undermines the first half.
- No more illegal wars, a foreign policy that prioritises justice and assistance. Replacing Trident not with a new generation of nuclear weapons but jobs that retain the communities’ skills.
Jeremy Corbyn is deeply hostile to NATO. That is an alliance for justice and assistance. Just ask the Kosovars. On Trident, he wants to have his cake and eat it. Those skills will be lost. Governments have a tremendously bad record at safeguarding areas as industries decline. Supply does not necessarily create its own demand. On Trident, like Jeremy I want a nuclear free world. I also want to retain a nuclear capability with the likes of Vladmir Putin on our doorstep. So until there is a trusted global agreement to eradicate all nuclear weapons, I’m not going to take any chances.
- Fully-funded NHS, integrated with social care, with an end to privatisation in health.
There’s a pattern to these. The first part of the pledge is acceptable and then there’s a sting in the tail. The NHS has always relied on private providers. I don’t think that’s a good or bad thing. It’s just a reality. There is no more reason to outlaw privately run cancer services than there is to outlaw self-employed GPs. If they are high quality and provide value for money that *reinforces and improves* the NHS which I would have thought was a good thing. No other country has this bizarre and self-defeating aim. Every health system in every country is a mixed economy and the NHS should be too.
- Protection at work – no zero hours contracts, strong collective bargaining to stamp out workplace injustice.
Many people value and rely on zero-hours contracts. Not everyone is looking to work a standard working week. Some might want multiple employers. Where they are abusive and exclusive they should be illegal but they can be, in many cases, a good addition to the labour market. Collective bargaining is fine but unions currently only represent less than 15% of private sector workers. Surely we should be asking, what forms of protections do modern workers need in a largely non-unionised private sector? Collective bargaining is not the answer to that challenge.
- Equality for all – a society that accepts no barriers to everyone’s talents and contribution. An end to scapegoating of migrants.
- A life-long national education service for decent skills and opportunities throughout our lives: universal childcare, abolishing student fees and restoring grants, and funding adult skills training throughout our lives.
What a bureaucratic monster. I have commented on HE funding above. Universal childcare would be a huge middle-class subsidy. It’s poorly targeted and very costly. They are better ways of targeting support. For example, childcare vouchers plus investment in good value care or co-operative provision (groups of parents coming together to pool their labour). Individual learning accounts is a better solution to adult skills training than a national funding scheme. It enables local innovation, adaptability and targeting. The fraud issues of the previous scheme can be easily resolved. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to have the same entity dealing with childcare and vocational education. It will be ineffective.
So that leaves his economic policy. Others have done much of the work on pulling apart his notion that there is £120billion or so taxes just waiting to be collected or that it is in any way a good idea for the Government to start printing money so ending Bank of England independence. None of these ideas are new. They’ve been bouncing around for years. They would signal to world markets that Britain was closed for business and investment. Once again, we see claims that his manifesto is one that supports investment and growth as highly suspect.
So overall, it’s not the issue of electability that is most concerning, it is the policy programme. In almost all respects, it is the wrong course to pursue. It is the same rigid statist model with government at the centre of most things that still holds sway within Labour. The ideas of Andy Burnham, in particular, are in this mould too. It’s difficult to judge exactly what Yvette Cooper thinks but I suspect she’s in the statist-lite camp too.
All of which begs a question: why stay around if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership? My answer is very simple: I believe passionately in the need to spread power, wealth and opportunity in a decisively democratic direction and it is the Labour that has been a prime means of securing greater social justice for the last century. It’s had bad leaders before. If Jeremy Corbyn wins, he will be the worst leader Labour has had by some margin. It may or may not survive. But I intend on sticking around to fight for not only its survival but its future success- for social justice.
*I have tried to argue that this election should not have been only focused on Jeremy Corbyn in previous blogs. It was futile. If you can’t beat them, join them.