1 August 2016

Corbyn’s Labour has a problem with policy: it has none


For all the complaints of Labour moderates, one of the most common is that Jeremy Corbyn has not offered a clear set of policies in opposition to the Conservative Party. This is not a new problem.

Labour found it difficult to find a coherent policy platform after leaving office in 2010. Ed Miliband struggled create a package of policies that both distinguished him from New Labour, while offering a strong alternative to the Conservatives. The Labour policy review under his leadership took several years, cost thousands of pounds, and produced little in the way of concrete policy alternatives.

Perhaps the clearest example of this was Miliband’s pledge before the 2015 general election to cut tuition fees to £6000 a year. Such policies are tweaks, not radical changes, and struggle to reach an audience. The tuition fee cut didn’t attract working people who never went to university, who were understandably not keen to subsidise the education of others when they did not benefit. Meanwhile students, who were strongly opposed to the principle of student loans when their parents studied for free, were not enthused by such relatively small change in their circumstances. As such, this policy won few votes.

However, Ed Miliband did at least offer an alternative to Conservative policy. Under Jeremy Corbyn, policy making in Labour has gone from sclerotic to non-existent.

Perhaps the easiest way to see this change is simply to log on to the respective party websites of Britain’s two major political parties.

The Conservative Party website drives home its message of fiscal competence and its ambition to be the party of working people. There is even an interactive calculator to allow you to see exactly how the party thinks its policies are helping you directly, and a map of policy pledges that have been delivered in your local area.

If you log on the Labour Party website, you will see lots of pictures of happy, enthusiastic activists, but you will struggle to find anything policy related at all.

As Neil Coyle, Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark put it:

“All we get from Jeremy is the anti-politics, the anti-policy. He defines himself by what he is against and not by what he is for. The only policy he actually announced in his leadership launch, equal pay audits, was in our manifesto last year, so that is nothing new.”

It is not just Corbyn himself but the staff surrounding him in the leadership office that constrains policy making, moderates say. They produce little in the way of policy, and rarely challenge Corbyn on his ideas. Labour MPs find their policy ideas, and even basic questions, are simply not being passed on, with calls left ringing and emails not answered.

Coyle continued:

“He has appointed people who are unable or unwilling to challenge him. This goes to this air of intimidation problem. They just cannot … say to him you need to do this by this date, and they have never had a clear agenda. So what are the milestones? What are the things going on in real people’s lives that we can peg policies to? They don’t want to confront him because they don’t want to get shut out. Or worse they fear they will get slagged off and slated.”

This dearth of policy making has not gone unnoticed by those in the business of making it. Prominent left wing economists Thomas Piketty and David Blanchflower both recently announced that they had stepped back from advising the Labour Party.

The result of this culture of groupthink has been that the few concrete policy announced by Jeremy Corbyn have quickly fallen apart. Most recently, we saw confusion at his leadership launch, when he suggested that, under a Corbyn government, all drug research would be completed by the Medical Research Council, as part of the Department of Health.

“His policy on the NHS was baffling, because he sounded like he was saying only the public sector should invest in medical research in the UK,” said Coyle. “Well do you want to tell that to charities like the Dementia Society? Do you want to tell that to the Alzheimer’s Society? Do you want to tell that to Macmillan? Or Marie Curie?”

Indeed, this misunderstanding of the pharmaceutical industry, and the impact on patients of losing millions of pounds in private and voluntary sectors that banning them from the market would have, led to a rather trite reply from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry:

“We would be very happy to meet Mr Corbyn to discuss his concerns and tell him more about our work and the value that we bring to UK patients and the UK economy.”

Coyle was somewhat blunter in his appraisal:

“It is a truly pathetic operation. He couldn’t run a bath.”

The incident forced a rapid U-turn from John McDonnell, but the damage was done.

However, just getting rid of Corbyn offers no easy solution to Labour’s policy problem. Labour leadership contendor Owen Smith announced a series of 20 left wing policies last week, including a wealth tax, increasing NHS funding above inflation, and a “New Deal” for £200bn in infrastructure investment. There is clearly a risk that this is perceived by the British public as a resurrected Milibandism, even in the unlikely event that Smith wins over the party base. To be fair to Smith, he has had little time to develop a full programme, but he will need to bear in mind such a policy approach was rejected comprehensively at the ballot box last year. An end to Corbynism will not spell the end of Labour’s policy conundrum.

The problem of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party is not just one of leadership. The Labour Party policy making machine has stalled, with little prospect of a jump start in the near future going by his strong showing in the leadership election polls. If the Labour Party wants to become the party of government once more, this dearth of policy making will need to change.

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist, published in the New Statesman, The Independent and The International Business Times.