This will be remembered as the week when Jeremy Corbyn's vague vision became a properly electable plan

At the Labour leadership hustings, Owen Smith veered wildly to the left and then kept repeating that he loves winning elections. Meanwhile, Corbyn quietly released some very sensible policies for the future of Britain

Michael Chessum
Friday 05 August 2016 16:08
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Jeremy Corbyn unveiled ten key pledges this week
Jeremy Corbyn unveiled ten key pledges this week

By far the most remarkable thing about last night’s Labour leadership hustings was just how far to the left politics inside the party has shifted. Whatever happens next, Jeremy Corbyn can be credited with having transforming Labour, putting into the mainstream ideas that until recently were laughed out of town – only, apparently, to be taken up by opponents in this election.

This time last year, Labour was emerging from an election in which it touted the infamous “tough controls on immigration” mug and then abstained on the welfare bill. Last night, Owen Smith was falling over himself to back Corbyn’s stance on tax justice and austerity. Had it not been for the baying of the crowd, it could have been recorded coverage from the “I agree with Nick” general election TV debate in 2010.

The shift goes further than the party’s internal debates. As leader of the opposition, Corbyn has given voice to a public sentiment which is well to the left of centre on taxation, public ownership and investment, and chipped away at the austerity consensus.

What almost everyone would concede is that, beyond the big narrative of austerity, Labour has not always had the clearest of messaging in the minds of many voters. You can argue over the causes – maybe it’s incompetence, or maybe it’s the fact that the message has become corrupted by actions of the Parliamentary Labour Party and reporting in the right-wing media – but the fact of it is undeniable. In fact, polls consistently show that clarity of message is one of Corbyn’s biggest problems.

So in many ways, the most significant thing to happen this week was not the Labour leadership hustings – which was mainly a showcase of Owen Smith’s intention to swerve wildly to the left while repeatedly stating that he likes winning elections – but Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement of ten key pledges “to rebuild and transform Britain”. The pledges provide the foundations of a comprehensive policy platform for Labour at the next election.

At the core of Corbyn’s pledges is a plan to rejuvenate “left behind” communities and address the crisis in jobs and housing. The plan is to use a £500bn National Investment Bank to pump a huge stimulus into the economy and invest in infrastructure – and to distribute the social dividend to communities that need it, not to the private sector. A million new homes and a million new jobs are not just what is needed by many people – they are clear, quantified core messages that can be repeated and repeated.

Jobs, housing and investment are hardly new ideas – but it is above all a high tech, high skill economy that Corbyn is offering to create. Similarly, the National Education Service incorporates familiar demands from within the Labour movement, like the abolition of tuition fees, but then goes much further – breaking down the barriers between traditional education, vocational training and lifelong learning. This is culture-changing stuff.

Crucially for the dynamics of the campaign, the ten pledges are significantly to the left of anything that Owen Smith could plausibly offer. Smith promises to repeal the Trade Union Act, but Corbyn promises to repeal far more, and to introduce mandatory collective bargaining for large firms. Smith pledges to build houses, but Corbyn pledges to build half a million council houses. Smith says he wants to end austerity, but Corbyn now has a programme to do much more than that.

Above all the noise of the leadership hustings, this could well be the moment that Jeremy Corbyn’s vision became a serious plan.

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