Free broadband. Free adult learning. Free dental care. The biggest council house building programme in decade. Abolish student tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants. All paid for by squeezing the rich, raising corporation tax, making tech giants pay the exchequer a fair whack, and by borrowing more. As Jeremy Corbyn was proud to state, this was the most radical Labour party manifesto in years.
One of the questions asked at the document’s launch was whether Labour wanted to turn the clock back to the 1970s. Actually, the inspiration was more Clement Attlee in 1945 than Tony Benn 30 years later. Labour’s starting point, as at the end of the second world war, was that something has gone fundamentally wrong with free-market capitalism and only a socialist transformation can put things right.
So, as in 1945, there were plans for a big expansion of the state’s role, both through re-nationalisation and much tighter regulation of the way business operates.
But Labour’s manifesto was not just a throwback to the days of the Berlin airlift and Ealing comedies; it had a modern populist twist. There was an attempt to draw a dividing line between the people and a corporate/financial/media-owning elite, between the billionaires and those struggling to get by, between the top 5% who will pay more income tax and the 95% who will get a whole bunch of things for free. Labour has learned some lessons from the rightwing populists: identify your enemies, channel anger at a rigged system, offer painless solutions.
The contrast between Labour’s 2019 manifesto and the platform on which Tony Blair fought and won the 1997 general election could hardly be starker. Under Blair, Labour accepted the broad thrust of market reforms introduced by the Conservatives in the previous 18 years. It used means testing to target financial support to those deemed to need it most. And it spent its first two years in office sticking to the Major government’s tough spending plans because it thought economic credibility came first.
Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, are in a completely different place. They want to break with the status quo rather than work within it. They favour universalism over means testing. They also don’t accept their plans have to be given the thumbs up from the City before they can be implemented. If the plan for a radical transformation of the British economy works, as Corbyn and McDonnell are convinced it will, the credibility will follow.
Labour’s political strategy is clear: get the election debate off Brexit and on to ground where it is more comfortable: the pledge to raise the national minimum wage to £10 an hour for everyone; the big increases in education spending; free personal care for the over-65s; the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of student maintenance grants. Corbyn thinks that if he can neutralise Brexit, there is still time to close the opinion poll gap with the Tories.
That’s certainly what happened in 2017 when voters tired of hearing Theresa May parrot her “strong and stable” mantra. The hope is that they will become equally weary this time of listening to Boris Johnson say: “Get Brexit done.”
If it can get the campaign off Brexit, Labour thinks the public will be receptive to the sort of radical, and expensive, agenda it is proposing, providing the message is couched in the right way. Although there have been clear signs in recent years that voters are suffering from austerity fatigue, public trust in politicians is at a record low. To reassure a sceptical public that it can deliver on its promises, the manifesto was accompanied by a document detailing how its £83bn of day-to-day spending increases would be matched pound for pound by tax increases.
These costings are likely to come under much more scrutiny than they did two and a half years ago, when Corbyn’s appeal was underestimated by the Conservatives.
Labour had a radical manifesto in 2017 and has an even more radical programme this time. The copycat behaviour of the Conservatives, including pledges to raise the minimum wage, abandon cuts in corporation tax to fund higher NHS spending, shows how Labour has moved the dial on austerity and the economy more generally. But Labour didn’t win the last election and as things stand is not on course to win this one. The next three weeks will see whether voters believe team Corbyn can deliver the changes they want to see.