London | Welcome to Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain – the land of the free. Free broadband. Free prescriptions. Free university degrees. Free childcare. Free dentistry. Free aged care.
Except it’s not free, of course. The cost is eye-watering. The British Labour leader’s promises amount to £83 billion ($158 billion), the biggest-spending election manifesto in the country’s history.
That’s even before you add the £55 billion Labour would borrow each year to finance its infrastructure investment plans. Or the dosh required to renationalise the railways, postal service, broadband infrastructure, and the water and power utilities. Or the £24 billion it will ultimately cost to hold the state pension age at 66. And on it goes.
Somebody will have to pay. And first in line are the top earners and the top end of town: a combination of higher rates, lower thresholds and new targets for income tax, capital gains tax, company tax, stamp duty and inheritance tax, plus new taxes on the digital and energy sectors, private schools and financial transactions.
It’s hard to imagine the Australian Labor Party betting its electoral fortunes on such an elephantine and revolutionary program.
It’s equally tough to picture ALP leader Anthony Albanese trying to sell an election manifesto, as Corbyn did late last week, by rubbishing his detractors with a line from Franklin Roosevelt: “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.”
Trailing in the polls, Corbyn is bringing new, and literal, meaning to the phrase “going for broke”. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own merry cash splash, to be outlined early on Monday morning (AEDT), will inevitably look sober by comparison.
This isn’t the Labour Party of reforming centrist Tony Blair, or even of left-leaning 2015 election loser Ed Miliband. It even overshadows the legendary 1983 “suicide note” manifesto from Michael Foot – until now the high-water mark of Labour’s periodic leftward turn, and preface to a shattering landslide defeat.
But there are plenty of true believers. “I was nearly crying on the stage, because this was so hopeful,” said Labour MP and possible Corbyn successor Laura Pidcock.
Us-and-them rhetoric rarely builds the political bridges to the middle ground that you need to capture if you’re to win elections.
And middle England is confused. On the one hand, opinion polls show that some of Corbyn’s policies are popular. A shade over half of respondents support nationalising the railways and just under half are OK with a state takeover of the energy and water utilities. Only one-fifth to one-quarter of respondents are decidedly against. Similar proportions support forcing every large company to hand over to its employees one-third of its boardroom seats and 10 per cent of its shares.
But this doesn’t translate into support for Corbyn – the most unpopular opposition leader in British polling history. He’s barely seen as more trustworthy than the prevaricating Johnson – particularly on the economy. Corbyn’s Labour Party is 12 points behind in opinion polls.
People don’t trust him; they fear he’s too radical. They like his compassion, but they doubt his competence.
And even if tax increases are notionally directed elsewhere, most people likely know that, ultimately, everybody pays.
“The truth is, of course, that in the end corporation tax is paid by workers, customers or shareholders, so would affect many in the population,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies – the thinking person’s think tank.
“If you want to transform the scale and scope of the state then you need to be clear that the tax increases required to do that will need to be widely shared, rather than pretending that everything can be paid for by companies and the rich.”
So far, this red-in-tooth-and-claw manifesto doesn’t seem to embody an election-winning strategy. What is Labour thinking?
Corbyn was for a long time a marginal figure in his party: a long-serving backbencher and serial rebel who peddled his pet causes and espoused radical socialism. He was the token left-winger in the 2015 leadership election – a rotating candidacy among his fellow refuseniks, just to give the party fringes the chance to feel included.
It didn’t go according to the then Labour hierarchy’s plan. The party membership – given a newly influential vote in the leadership election, and always more to the left than the MPs – was dispirited, and still sore over Blair’s divisive legacy: the Iraq War, and a cooling relationship with the trade union movement. Corbyn was the right man in the right place at the right time to seize on this zeitgeist.
Young ideologues and entryists flocked to the party. The union movement saw a chance to seize back control from the centrist parliamentary party, and reinject a bit of lost vigour into the class war with the capitalist bosses and bankers.
Corbyn’s affable persona was the public front, while hardman shadow chancellor John McDonnell provided the policy heft and led the cleanout of the ranks, embedding the far left into the party’s power structures.
The early years were rocky, but Corbyn’s skills as a stump campaigner – particularly against a wooden prime minister – Theresa May – meant he exceeded expectations in the 2017 election, losing less heavily than expected.
He won a second shot at the prize, and now he’s taking it. He and his devotees probably know he’s not going to win. But that’s not the point. There is the sheer thrill of putting a pure and radical manifesto to the people.
A loss won’t necessarily be a loss: it will be the fault of the mainstream media, the conned voters. Another way they look at it is that although this manifesto won’t deliver occupation of Downing Street, it will have shifted the dial.
“Whether Labour loses or wins, in this campaign it has begun to set out a new, potent notion about how politics should be done and what elected politicians can achieve,” wrote Guardian columnist Andy Beckett.
At the manifesto launch, Corbyn himself quoted Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: “You can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop spring from coming.”
But if Labour does shift the dial, this may actually benefit Boris Johnson. He is trying to win Labour seats, and so is road-testing a bit of economic populism of his own. If Labour tacks left, this experiment becomes safer.
His manifesto will turn on the public spending spigot, cut income taxes at the bottom end and reportedly also promise freebies on childcare. He’s going to splash the cash too – but all he has to do is stay the right side of Labour’s largesse.
He can shake the “magic money tree”, to coin an old Tory insult hurled at Labour, while pointing to Corbyn’s “magic money forest”.
Labour may indeed be redefining the art of the politically possible. Who’d have thought an opposition party could so easily allow a fiscally reckless and politically unconvincing Conservative government to have such a decent shot at regaining a parliamentary majority?