Labour Party Conference: New Politics from the Old Textbook

End the public sector pay cap. Abolish tuition fees. Begin a wave of nationalisations. Start a National Transformation Fund. Protect older people’s benefits. Tax the rich further. Unite the warring factions of Remain and Leave.

These are some of the ideas proffered at the Labour Conference. A lot are sensible; it’s quite right to point out the need for long-term investment, call out Trump’s dangerous foreign policy, and highlight areas where the government have got it wrong, from homelessness to NHS waiting times.

It’s very hard to disagree with all of this, because what citizen doesn’t want all of those things? Well, therein lies the rub – all of those things.

First there’s the cost: these pledges are expensive. We’ve already had £250bn, no small sum, outlined for the Transformation Fund. According to the IFS, raising public sector pay in line with inflation will be another £4.1bn a year by 2019/20. McDonnell puts writing off student debt at £10bn. It’s obvious this will require massive borrowing, so how exactly does this square with Labour’s professed goal of getting the “deficit and debt under effective control”?

Then there’s the question of priorities. Take tuition fees for instance. The greatest beneficiaries of abolishing tuition fees would not be working class students (who are going to university in greater numbers than ever before, and don’t repay anything if they can’t) but those who end up in the middle class, who land good salaries and end up paying their loans back. I think university should be cheaper as well, but are there not better investments we can find for this money than plugging a needless funding gap caused by completely scrapping fees? To say this is some progressive coup is misleading. It’s an old-fashioned middle-class giveaway that could be better spent elsewhere.

Finally, the implementation. So we nationalise a bunch of industries… then what? How do we compensate companies that were under PFI contracts? How do we ensure enterprises retain competitiveness? We all want a Brexit that delivers for everyone, but how do you reconcile ending free movement and exploiting the single market? We want to protect older people’s benefits and avoid “squeezing” them… but then how else are we to contain the explosion in old-age care costs that’s underway, and why is it unreasonable to ask old people with more (often unearned) wealth to rely on that before recourse to the state?

When you look at it like this, all of a sudden things aren’t so simple. There are trade-offs, complications, and a lot of unsatisfactory or absent answers to pressing issues.

Corbyn points repeatedly to a new kind of politics, but in promising the earth because he doesn’t yet have to deliver it he’s using the same old tricks from the opposition playbook.

Saying that, he is right about one thing: the government looks tired and out of ideas. Apart from cutting costs and managing Brexit, no-one really knows what the Tory vision is anymore; with all the infighting, they don’t seem to know either. So although many of Corbyn’s ideas aren’t realistic and definitely contestable, Corbyn will keep winning the debate until the government stops with the old Labour-bashing tactics and articulates a positive vision of their own.


Samuel Robinson


(Image courtesy of City AM)