Read more: Labour’s plan for business
With Jeremy Corbyn’s convincing re-election as Labour leader, friends and foes alike have called for the party to unite. In a competent and well-delivered speech to the Labour Party conference, Corbyn made clear that the unity he wants is one based around his own socialist vision for the party and the country rather than compromises with internal opponents. He extolled his refreshed mandate, praised the influx of new members and lauded those back-bench Labour MPs who stepped in to take on vacated front-bench roles after the mass resignation in June, describing them as “our future.” It earned him one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon and a standing ovation from some but not all in the audience. The wounds of the summer have not yet healed.
But most of Corbyn’s speech was devoted to policy, something on which he has been criticised for not saying enough over the last year. He set out ten policy pledges on which the party would campaign, covering the economy, public services and foreign policy. The ideological direction of travel was distinctly left-wing.
Corbyn’s message on domestic policy could be described as “bringing the state back in.” He condemned the failures of free-market orthodoxy over the last 30 years, saying that government could not stand back but should intervene. That would involve establishing a national investment bank that would borrow money for infrastructure projects such as broadband, green technology and the railways, with the latter being renationalised. The bank would have £500 billion to invest to grow the economy. There was no talk of fiscal responsibility or budget deficits.
Corbyn also pledged to lift the cap on local councils’ ability to borrow, enabling them to build thousands of extra council houses a year. Again, his principal focus was on the state sector rather than the private sector. He promised a national education service, saying that skills were badly needed for the economy. In return for a Corbyn government investing in infrastructure, he would expect business to pay for his education scheme through an increase in corporation tax. He also called for a clampdown on corporate tax avoidance.
This type of statist programme was anathema to New Labour, which stood for pro-business policies and a steering rather than rowing state. But it has more in common with the interventionist instincts of Ed Miliband’s party. The intellectual dominance of the Labour left precedes Corbyn’s tenure as leader and has gathered apace since the party’s return to opposition.
Miliband’s belief, shared by Corbyn, was that the financial crash of 2008-09 created a popular desire for left-wing policy solutions. Corbyn sought to associate the left’s take-over of the Labour Party with a wider global revolt against elites and orthodoxy. Syriza and Podemos have surged on their opposition to austerity, after all. But unemployment rates in Greece and Spain are over 20 per cent, compared with the UK’s 5 per cent. Certainly, there is job insecurity in Britain, as symbolised by zero-hours contracts, but is that sufficient to propel a radical-left Labour Party into government?
The feeling that what pleases a Labour audience is different to what appeals to voters came through most clearly on immigration. Corbyn denounced scare-mongering about migrants, saying that they were necessary for the economy and any pressure they put on public services could be alleviated by extras resources. But one of the lessons of the EU referendum—where a third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit—is that many people are concerned about the social and cultural impact of immigration. Identity sometimes trumps economics. It is another fissure that is opening up between centrist MPs and Corbyn, with many worrying about the electoral damage that could await Labour in its Northern English heartlands.
Corbyn finished his speech with some more left-wing stock points. He condemned arm sales to Saudi Arabia and earned a huge cheer for denouncing the Iraq War. He ended by claiming that Labour didn’t win sufficient votes last year because it failed to offer a proper alternative to the Conservatives. Today’s promise of clear red water will test that theory to destruction.