When Owen Smith announced his manifesto for the Labour leadership, Corbynites mocked him for pinching the left’s new array of policies. But the real joke is on those who have been taken as fools by a political clique whose ideas are neither new, nor that significant a departure from the Labour establishment.
Since becoming Shadow Chancellor, McDonnell has essentially admitted that his and Jeremy Corbyn’s slander of Ed Balls’ and Ed Miliband’s policies as austerity-lite was pure rubbish. “Deficit denial is a non-starter for anyone to have economic credibility with the electorate”, McDonnell wrote as he announced a fiscal rule nearly identical to the one pledged in that last manifesto. If elected, a Labour government would run a current budget surplus if elected and reduce debt as a share of GDP and only borrow to invest.
The investment not cuts ideology was right there in 2015, with a promise to run a deficit (check) to fund a national investment bank (check) in order to create new jobs in the manufacturing sector (check). Hell, even Chuka Umunna and Vince Cable have been touting the importance of robust investment and an industrial policy. Would McDonnell spend more than Miliband had promised? Perhaps, although as far as anyone can see right now, his $500bn number has been plucked out of his arse. Indeed, it is not clear that there would be enough viable projects to soak up such a large amount with an economic payoff.
Miliband voted against the bombing of Syria, promised to oppose NHS privatisation, to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, to get rid of zero-hour contracts, and to freeze energy prices. In his first conference speech as leader he said: “Our alliance with America is incredibly important to us but we must always remember that our values must shape the alliances that we form and any military action that we take.”
If there’s one issue that Corbyn’s administration has been confident on it is the renationalisation of the railways. There were strong indications that such a move would be on the agenda in a Miliband government, with official policy being to allow the government to join in the bidding process for rail franchises as existing contracts expired.
So on the big issues of health, economics, transport, and foreign policy, the hard-left, trotskyite, fascist junta that Tom Watson thinks he is surrounded by is little more than a stones throw away from the Labour Party that was ‘indistinguishable’ from the Tories in 2015.
So what is really radical about Jeremy Corbyn? One or two truly heterodox ideas are occasionally floated. People’s quantitative easing and a National educational service spring to mind, policies which Corbyn seems to wheel these two ideas out to sound different during leadership elections and put them back in the cupboard afterwards. While the first is little more than the sketch of a policy, the second has been somewhat better defined. So let’s deconstruct it.
At the junior end of the spectrum this means rebuilding the Blairite project of SureStart. At the higher level it means the end of student fees. This is a popular pledge among students, and was pledged by Andy Burnham last year, who went further than Miliband’s proposal to cut them to £6,000 and boost maintenance grants.
We can discover from a LabourList piece by Jeremy that the real distinction is the replacement of exploitative apprenticeships with new apprenticeships, mutually accredited by colleges and businesses that provide “high quality transferable skills”. The skills gap is a crucial economic issue for this generation. But it’s hardly an outlandish left wing idea, it’s not difficult to imagine even the Progress wing of the party backing targeted adult education.
When it comes to what this policy would look like in practice (i.e. if one wanted to avoid perverse incentives which would allow people to stay in education for life), there’s little that radical here. Yet wrapping it up in the cradle-to-grave language of the NHS makes it sound far more grandiose and revolutionary than it is.
This is what is really new about Corbyn’s platform. It states its socialism proudly, rather than obscuring it with drab language and hard spin. Every policy is adorned with some kind of left-wing buzzword – the people’s this, the people’s that – disguising the fact that they are each just traditional social democratic ideas repackaged and remarketed.
Corbyn is certainly unlike any Labour Party leader before him, unprecedented in both his infuriating fecklessness and his refreshing honesty. Jeremy stands for a new kind of politics, but hardly brand new policies.