What we're likely to see in the Labour manifesto, and the big questions Corbyn still needs to answer

Image, leadership and personalities matter – but so do policies. What would a Labour government actually do?

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The Independent Online

After the disastrous loss of Copeland in the February by-election – surely one of the factors that fed into Theresa May’s decision to go to the country early – Jeremy Corbyn said that he and his party were at an early stage in a “cumbersome” process of framing new policies, apparently through a process of roadshows, the national policy forum and, of course, “conference”. 

“There’s also a question of democratic policy-making. That is slightly longer and more cumbersome than calling a few experts into my office to tell me what policies should be,” he said.

Well, no time for cumbersome democratic procedures now. I’d love to know the name of the poor soul who will be tasked with writing the document: if they tarry too long and leave a vacuum, then the Conservatives will happily define Labour’s policies for them. This Labour will very soon need to resolve some the most difficult issues that have already divided and demoralised the party, and to get workable policies, with or without expert help.

Granted some of Labour’s individual policies, such as that on free school meals, are eye-catching, funded and liked by the public. But not all are yet. What, then, will Labour’s policy offer be on the following:

Jeremy Corbyn dodges question on whether he would stand down if Labour is defeated

Brexit

First, Brexit. Is the party really going to campaign for a “Brexit that works for all” as Corbyn indicated? If so, then the Labour leader will have precisely the same approach and even slogan as the Prime Minister, and the same basic policy as Ukip, with none of the right wing parties’ unity and credibility on Europe. The voters will want to know:

  • What will a Labour government’s negotiating priorities be?
  • How would a Corbyn government limit EU migration, if at all?
  • Will Labour offer the country a referendum on the terms of Brexit, with the option of staying in the EU when a deal is done?

Defence

Second, defence. Traditionally tricky for Labour and nothing new there. The questions are obvious :

  • Will Labour undertake to fund a like-for-like Trident replacement?
  • Will Labour honour the Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence?

Scotland

Third, Scotland, already the subject of disarray:

  • Will a Labour government allow a referendum on Scottish independence before Brexit?
  • Is Labour in favour of a fully federalised UK with devolution for the English regions?
  • Will Labour do a deal with the SNP to get into power, and at what price?

Economy

Fourth, the economy and public services. Lots here but here are some key questions:

  • Will Labour publish a “shadow budget” with their tax, spending and borrowing plans audited by the likes of the Institute for Fiscal Studies?
  • How much will Labour borrow compared to Conservative Plans?
  • Will they retain the triple lock for pension rises?
  • How much spending will Labour guarantee for the NHS?
  • Will Labour commit not to raise income tax or national insurance or VAT?
  • Which benefit cuts will they restore and when?
  • Will they take all or part of the railways over a period into public ownership, ie renationalised?
  • Will they scrap tuition fees and free schools?

At the moment none of these questions has been answered definitively. When the late Gerald Kaufman dubbed the 1983 Labour manifesto the “longest suicide note in history” it was more than an epochal quip. It arose because the Labour shadow Cabinet and National Executive Committee couldn’t agree on key aspects of policy on – yes, you guessed it – Europe, nuclear arms, and the economy.

So the Labour apparatchiks decided to stitch together a compendium of Labour conference resolutions, some, naturally enough, mutually contradictory. It was, to borrow a phrase, a “cumbersome” process and was memorably compared by Conservative Central Office to the similar policy pledges from the Communist Party of Great Britain. There was even a Saatchi poster with the relevant quotes and the comment “Like your manifesto, comrade”.

At this rate, Labour may or may not end up with the longest suicide note in history again, but certainly the most cumbersome one. Jeremy Corbyn has already told us at least that. 

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