POLITICS
21/11/2019 23:07 GMT | Updated 22/11/2019 07:25 GMT

Can Jeremy Corbyn’s Big State, Big Budget Manifesto Win The Big Vote?

This election will test to destruction the idea that the UK is ready for 21st century socialism.

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Hope Springs eternal

As Jeremy Corbyn unveiled his manifesto in Birmingham, the echoes of his 2017 launch were unmistakable. Back then, he was in another safe Labour heartland (Bradford), in another university atrium, whose several floors were packed with another group of eager young students.

The Labour leader has been accused of being more low-energy in this 2019 campaign, but if anything he seemed more fervent than ever today, rising to the occasion like a big match footballer coming out of the tunnel at Wembley.

He was self-confident and fluent, taking in his stride the several media questions lobbed at him (speaking of which, Boris Johnson has taken a grand total of just six press conference questions in this entire campaign). His speech had some nicely crafted phrases, not least his Pablo Neruda quote that “you can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming”.

After he set out his vision, shadow minister and possible future deputy leader Laura Pidcock said: “I was nearly crying on the stage, because this was so hopeful.” And hope was in plentiful supply. This was “a manifesto of hope”, as Corbyn put it.

The audience was as avid as two years ago too, their biggest cheers following one of his old hits (abolishing student tuition fees) and one of his new ones (‘our NHS is not for sale’). There were several big changes from 2017, not least putting the climate change emergency at the heart of this blueprint for government - probably the most radical such plan by any mainstream political party in a leading economy.

Corbyn brushed off claims that this was a return to the 1970s, saying it was in fact a future-looking manifesto. “Ours are actually the most up to date, modern, forward thinking, most brilliant ideas you will have ever heard anywhere in this election,” he said, in that characteristic, rat-a-tat accelerated delivery he uses when he’s excited (a nought-to-sixty speaking trait he curiously shares with Boris Johnson).

Yes, it was big state, but no more than publicly-owned utilties in western Europe. Yes, the corporation tax rate will go higher, but Japan has one of a similar size and isn’t accused of communism. Yes, public spending would be dramatically higher, but again Scandinavian countries seem to cope. Much of it would be funded by borrowing, but the Tories too are now following that once heretical thought (today government borrowing hit a five-year high).

Add in 5% pay rises for millions of public sector workers, free broadband, free prescriptions and more and you can see why Labour strategists think this will be even more popular programme than the one two years ago. So, what’s not to like?

Well, just as there’s that peculiarly British phrase that someone can be “too clever by half”, there’s a stubbornly British belief that things can be too good to be true. For all the talk that only the richest would pay for this extravaganza, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that it simply wasn’t “credible” to say others won’t end up paying more tax. As the IFS’s Paul Johnson put it: “It can’t be someone else who pays for it. We collectively will need to pay for it.”

And there is some rather large small print in the plans too. Among the several footnotes excluded from the costings today were the undefined £11bn windfall tax on oil firms, the 4-day week (“not included because it is a target for year ten of a Labour government”) and the ‘inclusive ownership fund’ that takes 10% of the shares of all large UK firms and is a tax in all but name. Halting the rise in state retirement age beyond 66 adds a whopping £26bn a year to spending by 2050.

Yet if there are problems with some of the policy, there are greater problems with the politics. In our first past the post system, it’s not enough to have an echo chamber of your own supporters cheering you to the rafters (or atrium balconies). You need to convince, wait for it, people who have voted Tory in the past. Those ex-Tories did indeed back Corbyn in 2017 in enough numbers for him to win some seats that are now micro-marginals.

But with his leadership ratings even worse today, it seems that many doubt he lacks the competence to trust him with their money. Add in resentment about Brexit not being delivered and you can see why it looks like an uphill battle. That’s why it was perhaps an error for Corbyn to frame this contest the way he did today.

Corbyn riffed off President Franklin Roosevelt’s line when he took on the rich in the 1930s by saying “they are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred”. Repeatedly today, he went further, saying “I accept the hostility” of the billionaires, the media moguls, the CEOs who will be threatened by his government. 

That’s not risk-free rhetoric. Floating voters wavering about voting Labour may well resent the implication that if they’re not on Corbyn’s side they are automatically on the side of the billionaires. And if he does ‘accept the hostility’ of those working class voters who do indeed dislike him, they may end up voting against him rather than staying at home.

Corbyn did look today like one of his beloved Arsenal players ready for the big moment. But as the old cliche goes in football, can he do it on a wet Tuesday in Stoke? Especially when Stoke is heavily pro-Leave.

The Labour leader has undoubtedly got the Leader of the Opposition thing sorted. But as Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband discovered before him, it’s whether you’ve got the prime minister thing that determines elections. This campaign, for all its early hits on the Tories and for all its verve, could prove another ‘brilliant defeat’ to add to 1987 and 2017. A fourth election defeat in a row would show Labour is indeed good at the thing it hates most: losing.

One of Corbyn’s most telling lines today was when he was reminded his popular manifesto two years ago wasn’t popular enough. “We didn’t quite win the last election,” he said (the word ‘quite’ was very revealing, given Labour was a massive 60 seats from a majority). “I know that every day, I know we didn’t win because I see the problems day in, day out…”  

Angela Rayner, who could turn out to be Corbyn’s replacement, told Granada TV recently: “I will cry on December 13th if we don’t get a Labour government. Not just because we won’t have won...but I genuinely worry about what happens to our NHS, public services, schools, hospitals, police and our councils.”

If Johnson does win a majority, many Labour candidates think the poorest will be the real victims of the failure of Corbyn and Corbynism. They think he and his allies have the leftwing manifesto and agenda they wanted and will have to ‘own’ the result too. This election will certainly test to destruction the idea that Britain is ready for 21st century socialism.

Corbyn quoted the lyrical latin American poet Neruda’s Spring line today. But if the Tories win again, winter may be coming for Labour and the people it was founded to represent. And some of his former MPs may think John Cleese’s quintessentially British character in Clockwise is a better guide. “It’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

Thursday’s Election Cheat Sheet

Labour launched its 2019 manifesto with new pledges to impose a windfall tax on oil firms, to build 100,000 council homes a year and to give public sector staff a 5% pay rise.

The manifesto also announced a Corbyn government would “consult media-sector workers and trade unions to establish an inquiry into the ‘fake news’ undermining trust in media, democracy and public debate, and on a legal right of public interest defence for journalists”.

Tory minister  Priti Patel claimed that poverty in Britain was not the government’s fault. “It’s not the government, though, is it? Everybody just says ‘the government’ as if it is this sort of bland blob that, you know, you can just go and blame.”

Boris Johnson pulled out of a Channel 4 News debate with Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories banned the Mirror newspaper from the PM’s battlebus. HuffPost UK was also excluded from the bus.

Alex Salmond appeared in court charged with carrying out a series of sexual offences against 10 women while serving as Scotland’s first minister. Successor Nicola Sturgeon said “My only interest is in seeing justice done, whatever that may be”.

The Electoral Commission reported that the Tories pulled in £5.7m in donations  in the first week of the official election campaign. Labour raised just £218,500, the Lib Dems £275,000 and the Brexit Party £250,000.

Quote Of The Day

“Patriotism is about supporting each other not attacking somebody else.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s answer to those who claim he’s not patriotic enough.

What I’m Reading

Stoke, The City That Britain Forgot - UnHerd

How Exit Polls Work On Election Night - Warwick University

Why Labour’s Plans To Renationalise Some Public Services Makes Sense - The Conversation

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