Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of the party manifesto in Birmingham, the UK, on November 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of the party manifesto in Birmingham, the UK, on November 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

London — Jeremy Corbyn pulled no punches as he presented the country with his plan for a Labour government, the most radical proposed since 1983, when the party suffered its worst post-war defeat. 

Railways, water supply and broadband infrastructure would be brought into state ownership. The government’s total tax revenue would rise by about 10%. That would fund pay rises for public sector workers, free university tuition, free care for the elderly, among a long list of other goodies.

He also had a full list of enemies: “The billionaires and the super-rich, the tax-dodgers, the bad bosses and the big polluters.” These, he said, were the people “who profit from a rigged system.”

To activists in Birmingham, central England, for the launch, it was a dream come true. Britain’s Labour party has a long tradition of accusing its leaders of betraying the beliefs of the party, stretching through Tony Blair back to the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. But on Thursday, no-one was telling Labour members that they had to trim their ambitions to match the timidity of the electorate.

There was not much focus on Brexit. Like the Conservatives, Corbyn feels the nation is weary of hearing about it. Though Prime Minister Boris Johnson accuses Corbyn of having an unrealistic plan, his proposal to negotiate a close relationship with the EU in three months is no more implausible than Johnson’s own promise to negotiate and sign an advanced free trade arrangement by the end of 2020.

Reading the electorate

Corbyn’s analysis is that voters are sick of the debate, and also tired of the country’s creaking infrastructure, tired of stepping over homeless people, tired waiting for hospital treatment and tired of schools being underfunded, and are ready to pay for things to get better. Or rather, ready for someone else to pay for things to get better — the tax rises he proposes are carefully aimed at companies and the wealthy.

Is he right? Labour’s 1983 manifesto is given more prominence in history than it deserves, partly because of the magnificently pithy label attached to it by one of the party’s MPs, Gerald Kaufman: “The longest suicide note in history.” That election result was more to do with public perceptions of the relative merits of the Labour leader, Michael Foot, and the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. She was glorying in Britain’s recent victory in the Falklands War; he was struggling to shrug off the memory of strikes under the previous Labour government.

Domestic spotlight

Labour is offering plenty of things that will look attractive to plenty of people. Whether they decide to vote for it will depend on whether those people look at Corbyn and see a prime minister who could plausibly do any of these things. And there, polls have him struggling. After the first head-to-head with Johnson, only 29% said Corbyn came over as the more prime ministerial of the pair.

Does the manifesto help to sell Corbyn? It certainly doesn’t lumber him with the problem of trying to sell something he doesn’t believe in, something that has made him look uncomfortable in the past, particularly on Brexit. It’s a reminder that he is a party leader quite outside the British political consensus of the past three decades. But its domestic focus takes the spotlight off areas where he is most radical, especially on foreign affairs, where his historic views are hostile to the US and to Nato.

It is also worth remembering that Corbyn’s path to power doesn’t necessarily go via gaining seats in parliament. If he can simply hold all the seats Labour has, and the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party can take some off the Conservatives, it will become very hard for Johnson to stay in office. So the question is whether this package can keep existing Labour voters on board.

In 2017, the Conservatives helped in that effort by announcing unpopular plans to use the value of people’s homes to pay for their care in old age. The party won’t repeat that error when it publishes its own manifesto, but it’s perfectly capable of making new mistakes. All eyes swing back to Johnson.


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