“You are offering slogans, not solutions," Owen Smith told Jeremy Corbyn during one of their heated Labour leadership debates this week. The challenger has a point: even some of Corbyn’s left-wing allies admit the Labour leader has had a “wasted year” on the policy front, saying this has enabled his internal critics to focus on his personality rather than substance.
When it was clear that Corbyn would face another leadership election, aides promised he would roll out policies during his campaign. He has pledged a free National Education Service, which would mean scrapping university tuition fees and bringing back educational maintenance allowances for 16 to 19 year-olds. But Corbyn announced something very similar in last year’s leadership contest and nothing much has been heard of it since. He has promised to renationalise the railways, which enjoys public support and was also unveiled last year. It could cost £10bn although, as with his education pledge, there is little sign of how it would be funded or if it would fit into the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s strategy to balance tax revenues and day-to-day spending over five years while borrowing more for investment projects.
Calling it a “fiscal credibility rule” does not guarantee that the public will judge it credible, especially if other spending pledges are sprayed around before the next general election. Popular policies do not work unless a party is trusted on the economy and Labour is not. Ed Miliband promised to cut tuition fees to £6,000 a year and it got him nowhere.
In his first year Corbyn has relied largely on vague anti-austerity rhetoric that plays well with his Labour fan club but does little to appeal to voters who backed the Conservatives last year. Theresa May has already loosened the nation’s purse strings to allow the economy to cope with Brexit and the Chancellor Philip Hammond is likely to announce a big rise in borrowing in his Autumn Statement. May has also moved on to Labour’s ground on executive pay and tax avoidance (which Labour seems to regard as an infinite source of revenue for its un-costed pledges). So there might be less space for Labour’s anti-austerity pitch than its leadership thinks.
At the hustings on Thursday night, Corbyn insisted his policies would win over “some people who have been tempted to vote Tory.” But he refused to commit to Britain providing military help for a Nato ally invaded by Russia, which will play well with the already converted but hardly enhance his appeal to Tory supporters.
Pro-Corbyn MPs suggest that policy development has been derailed by the constant attacks by MPs who refuse to accept the huge mandate he won last year. A different story emerges from people who have tried working with him and quit in exasperation. People like Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and Smith were among those who served in the Shadow Cabinet but concluded that Corbyn is not up to the job. Several have tales of him refusing to engage on detailed policy, preferring his own office to issue headlines without substance. The same criticism comes from advisers who have given up on him, including the economists David Blanchflower and Simon Wren-Lewis, and Neale Coleman, a widely respected former Ken Livingstone aide. They are all now backing Smith. Can all the people who have concluded Corbyn is not the right man to lead Labour be wrong?
Another telling example of what Corbyn’s critics describe as “Her Majesty’s dysfunctional Opposition” came when he refused to take part in leadership debates staged by left-leaning media organisations he regards as biased against him – The Daily Mirror, The Guardian, Channel 4 and New Statesman magazine. This is bizarre: if they are the enemy, it’s no wonder Corbyn has so few friends outside his army of social media followers.
In contrast, Smith has announced 20 carefully-costed policies including a 4 per cent rise in NHS spending; a £200bn infrastructure programme including 1.5 million new homes funded by borrowing and a 15 per cent wealth tax on unearned income for people earning £150,000 or more a year. He trumpets his socialist credentials at every opportunity, insisting he is not a “red Tory” or “Blairite” (the new hate word in Labour’s lexicon). Although there is very little between him and Corbyn on domestic policy, Smith supports the UK nuclear deterrent, would honour our Nato commitments and wants a second referendum on Brexit.
Some Labour members suspect that Smith is a Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing who would not put a socialist programme to the voters if he wins the leadership. Revealingly, he is booed and heckled at leadership hustings when he argues that winning power must be the priority. Many Labour members, it seems, will vote with their heart rather than their head. They prefer Corbyn’s values and authenticity and the hope of a new politics. As one Corbynista told me: “I would rather stick with Jeremy even if we only have a 5 per cent chance of winning [a general election].”
So Smith’s man-for-man policy marking on the left wing is unlikely to be enough to secure victory when ballot papers go out on Monday and votes are counted next month. Labour’s backdrop on the stage for the Corbyn versus Smith debates is rather optimistic: “Choose Labour’s next prime minister.”
That prospect feels a very long way away.
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