Mile End Institute

Mile End Institute Conference Briefings: Labour

As the party conferences get underway, three experienced analysts share their thoughts on the challenges facing each of the main political parties.  In this article, Tim Bale says Jeremy Corbyn will be keen to lay down a marker in his first conference as party leader. 

21 September 2015

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Ever since the BBC’s and LSE’s Bob McKenzie published his seminal work on British political parties back in 1955, we’ve known that Labour isn’t quite as democratic as it looks. 

Its leader, and those around him, have rather more say over the direction the party takes than implied by a constitution that stresses the sanctity and ultimate sovereignty of Conference.

For all that, it’s hard to imagine that Jeremy Corbyn, elected as Labour’s new leader only a fortnight before the party meets in Brighton, is going to be able to use the occasion to secure a virtually overnight change in its economic policies – even if, as may well be the case, many of the grassroots resolutions debated beside the seaside will actually chime pretty well with his way of thinking.

That said, Corbyn – supported by his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell – is bound to want to lay down a marker or two, not least to signal to all those who supported his successful bid for the top job that he really does intend to break from the supposedly ‘neoliberal’ policies that Tony Blair (‘Boo! Hiss!’) and Gordon Brown slavishly followed during their time in charge.

Most immediately, ‘New Old Labour’, as we may as well call it, will be nailing its anti-austerity colours to the mast by condemning just about every cut and cap proposed by the government, especially in the welfare field. 

Whether or not this is right in economic terms – and there is a good argument to be made that it is, given the negative impact on demand and the so-far patchy evidence on incentives to employment – this will of course place the party exactly where George Osborne wants it, namely on the wrong side of public opinion and prejudice.

Of course, Corbyn will focus in particular on those Tory welfare measures that many voters are uneasy about – most obviously, the bedroom tax and anything hurting disabled people. He will focus, too, on suggestions they may support – a higher minimum wage, rent controls, cutting private sector involvement in healthcare, reform of university fees, tougher regulation of the banking sector and energy markets. 

He will also flirt with renationalisation of the railways and talk about rebalancing the economy back toward manufacturing (the latter apparently being morally superior to services). 

And he’ll suggest that the public finances can be brought back into balance, not by raising taxes on the majority, but by cracking down harder on those at the top, as well as on corporate and individual tax avoidance and evasion.

The trouble is: Ed Miliband did all that, and look how far that got him.

The only really novel ideas canvassed so far by Team Jezza are (i) the suggestion that a new National Investment Bank be created to fund infrastructure projects using debt created by the Bank of England and (ii) some sort of ‘maximum wage’.

Quite why ‘People’s QE’ makes more sense than the government itself borrowing to do the self-same thing while interest rates remain at or near zero isn’t altogether clear. Nor is how any administration concerned about attracting investment and talent into the UK would go about preventing companies paying the going rate.

Cynics will argue, of course, that none of this matters. After all, Corbyn is never going to be PM. It may be worth remembering, however, that they said the same about his becoming leader of the Labour Party. Careful what you don’t wish for….

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book, Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband, was published in June 2015.

This article was first published on the Speri Blog