Most people must surely, by now, be aware of the fact that a very curious phenomenon is overtaking the UK’s largest political party. The man at the centre of this is Jeremy Corbyn – a backbench Labour MP who, on the 3rd of June 2015, acquired the nomination to contest the position of Leader of the Labour Party; left vacant by the resignation of Ed Miliband after Labour lost the May 2015 General Election.
It has become increasingly clear over the last three months that Corbyn, previously little-known and considered to be on the left-wing fringe of his party, is immensely popular both within his party and with many sections of the wider public. Furthermore, despite a series of attacks by high-profile members of his party (including Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Chuka Umunna), his popularity has remained high. The graph below illustrates his edge over the competition:
I, personally, believe that Jeremy Corbyn is overwhelmingly the best candidate to be Labour Leader – as I explain here and here. However, given that it looks increasingly likely that Corbyn will win, this article intends to look more closely at his actual policy positions and evaluate them. It is, after all, important to have the measure of the man who may well soon be leader of the major check on the government’s power – Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.
Jeremy Corbyn recognises that the austerity measures imposed by the Coalition Government caused a slowdown in the UK economy, resulting in the slowest post-crash recovery in our history and leaving the UK with a per-capita GDP which is still around 1.5% below its 2008 peak and seriously depressed wages. This is good, as most prominent Labour politicians have accepted the Conservative narrative that they have turned the economy around. He is committed to elimination of the deficit, which is less encouraging – deficits, contrary to the popular myth, are not inherently a bad thing and can actually be positive. However, he understands that George Osborne’s economic policy is damaging the UK.
Corbyn has pledged to increase investment into the UK economy, suggesting the use of quantitative easing to directly fund infrastructure and housing projects. This idea has received a generally positive response from economists. He has also called for a dramatic slashing of the so-called ‘corporate welfare’ bill, which he calculates at £93 billion. This money would be used to create a National Investment Bank, which would direct funds to infrastructure and to emerging industries. This would help to correct the current situation, in which corporations pay in corporation tax only two-thirds of what they receive in subsidies. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that important industries are not allowed to collapse.
On tax, Corbyn has pledged to make the system more progressive, and has outlined measures he would take to tackle tax avoidance and evasion, particularly by multinational companies. This is certainly welcome. However, detail on exactly which rates of tax he would alter are unclear. He opposes the cuts to inheritance tax and corporation tax announced in this year’s budget, but again, detail is missing on what rates and brackets he would set, although at least 2% would be added to the latter to fund education spending.
Whilst Corbyn’s tax proposals need fleshing out, he has the right idea on the economy in general and understands that investment, not swingeing cuts, is what is needed to help the UK economy back to its previous state of health and to ensure it is robust enough to withstand future crises.
Foreign Policy & Defence
On foreign policy, Jeremy Corbyn generally takes an anti-war position on most issues of conflict (unsurprising, given his position as Chair of the Stop the War coalition). He consequently opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also the more recent UK airstrikes in Libya and Iraq. Whilst he aligns clearly with public opinion on the former – as well he might, given the devastation the Coalition actions in those countries created – he goes against it on the latter; most of the British public is, in fact, in favour of extending strikes into Syria. He has criticised NATO expansionism with regards to the Ukraine, backs Palestinian independence from Israel and supports a United Ireland (though he has stated he would allow the people of Northern Ireland to make any decision on the matter as per the Good Friday Agreement).
Corbyn’s core pledge on defence is to move the UK towards being a nuclear weapons-free state, a policy which has long been popular on the left of British politics. He makes this argument on the grounds that having nuclear weapons encourages proliferation, costs a huge amount (around £1.86 billion a year) and is, he argues, militarily useless. It is, however, a concern that he pairs this ambition with skepticism about the UK’s NATO membership. Pulling out of NATO and decommissioning our nuclear arsenal would leave the UK unprotected by nuclear forces, something which would have serious strategic repercussions. Corbyn intends to use the money saved to boost technical jobs to replace those lost and to ‘diversify’ our defence forces, though detail on how this would be done is lacking.
Corbyn’s foreign and defence policy is certainly the most worrying element of the policy package he offers. Scrapping the nuclear deterrent would be extremely unwise, particularly if combined with a withdrawal from NATO. The lack of a clear plan as to the remainder of his ‘defence diversification’ programme is also a serious error. Opposition to fruitless warfare in the Middle East and support for Palestinian independence are both excellent improvements over past Labour leaders, but any potential statesman must be careful not to indulge in indiscriminate pacifism.
Jeremy Corbyn’s housing policies take into account the huge increase in house prices since the 1980s and the chronic shortage lack of government-funded housing construction has created in the market. He also criticises increasing rent levels. Corbyn’s housing plan is to build 240,000 homes a year (60,000 of which should be in London), compared to the coalition’s average of 145,000, and to fund this directly through the National Investment Bank. This is absolutely necessary if the UK is to deal with its housing crisis, and should be roundly welcomed. It would also help to head off any housing bubbles, such as the one which preceded the 2008 Financial Crash.
Corbyn also suggests that he would introduce rent caps, although he does not specify at what rates. This is a potentially effective policy in guaranteeing housing to those unable to buy outright, particularly in London and the South-East where many locals are being priced out. He intends to give local authorities greater powers to regulate the rental market and to ensure private sector rentals meet a minimum standard. Local authorities are also to be given the power to suspend the Right to Buy scheme if their housing stocks are running low.
Jeremy Corbyn’s housing policies are excellent, with the one downside being the lack of detail on rent controls, a policy which must be implemented carefully so as not to inadvertently shrink the rental market. These changes will help protect both those who own and those who rent their homes, and replenish Britain’s damaged housing stock.
Jeremy Corbyn’s major policy narrative on education is his National Education Service. This catchy title essentially comprises five key policies: universal free childcare, which he says would pay for itself due to increased productivity; extension of adult education programmes, paid for by the 2% increase to corporation tax; scrapping tuition fees, funded by the slowing down of the deficit reduction plan by two years; reinstating student maintenance grants; and equalising the minimum wage across all brackets.
The focus here is clearly on the later stages of education, benefiting students, apprentices and mature students and asking companies to help pay for it, the idea being that a better-educated labour force increases productivity and will ultimately boost the economy. This is a sound economic principle. It is disappointing, however, not to see greater attention paid to primary and secondary education, particularly with regards to the academies and free schools programmes which have carved up our education system.
Jeremy Corbyn’s health policies focus around mental health, a common theme among politicans in 2015 – and with good reason. He promises to reverse the 8% real-terms cut to mental health services since 2010, to ensure parity of esteem with physical health, to increase the number of NHS mental health professionals and to ensure all children are able to access counselling at school if required. Considering mental illness affects 25% of people each year, and about 10% of children at any one time, it is very important to tackle this issue. Corbyn offers some of the most comprehensive ideas about how to rescue the UK’s mental health system.