Corbynism (or why Nuneaton has a point)

I think Jeremy Corbyn would be an electoral disaster for the Labour Party from which it would take at least 10, probably 15 and quite possibly 20 years to recover. Too many of his supporters seem either indifferent to electoral success or utterly unaware of what that requires – but they’re right that the rest of us haven’t talked enough about policy. So here are a few of my concerns about his policies.

Jeremy says some things I support but don’t believe the British people will currently buy (a clear defence of higher taxes, though not necessarily his specific ones). There are also some I support and think they might well buy (universal childcare). But much of Corbynism isn’t just unelectable, but ill-thought-through, impractical and downright wrong.

Housing policy

Jeremy is calling for rent controls, with rent levels fixed in relation to earnings. Sounds wonderful: so why doesn’t Shelter buy it?

If you just cap prices in a situation where you haven’t got enough of something and too many people want to buy it, odd things start to happen. In this case, lots more people might sell rather than buy. Granted, we’ve all been saying we want more people to be able to buy homes. But what happens to people who can’t afford a deposit (or the still-uncapped mortgage payments) if the rental stock reduces too rapidly and the total housing supply doesn’t increase fast enough to match?

Will landlords just become more discriminating about people’s characteristics rather than the price they charge (‘No DSS’)? Will they cut back even further on things like repairs? Or will they subdivide properties more and more? More nuanced policies might be a different story (look at the rest of Europe, or the 2015 Labour manifesto), but just legislating a problem of supply and demand out of existence won’t work.

Jeremy is also proposing to extend some kind of ‘right to buy’ to the private sector. First of all, that seems a very odd spending priority for housing: our primary problem is insufficient stock, so why spend however much money on yet more subsidised ownership? (And since people in social housing have lower average incomes than private renters who can afford even a discounted property, isn’t it an odd distributional choice too?)

Second, how on earth would you control the cost? Right to buy may have done great damage, but at least councils actually owned the asset which was being flogged off: here, the state would have to pay the difference to landlords. (I suppose we could theoretically just take people’s property and give it to someone else at an enormous discount. Good luck getting that past the European Court of Human Rights.)

Third, why would you ever rent out a property if you could have it taken off you at any time? Like it or not, plenty of people can’t or don’t want to buy: they need a reliable private rented sector. By all means talk about how to improve it. But treating private rent with such abandon could really harm people who desperately need somewhere to live.

NATO membership

Jeremy has said he wants to leave NATO – our principal defence guarantee. Right now, our ‘if all else fails’ policy is NATO and, via NATO, the US commitment to Europe. We know that Jeremy doesn’t intend to raise defence spending way beyond 2% of GDP – it’s just about the only thing he’d definitely cut. There’s arguably an implicit defence guarantee in the EU treaties, and we have a European Defence Agency to co-operate on procurement, but these are a) pretty vestigial and b) exactly the kinds of things Jeremy won’t want the EU doing (assuming we stay in: see below).

So, given the rapidly rising costs of defence, Corbynism is offering us a radically reduced domestic capability, the abandonment of our key security guarantee and no replacement for either. That is not a defence policy. It’s crossing our fingers and hoping everyone will be nice to us forever.

EU membership

Jeremy has said he wants to fight for ‘a better Europe’, though we still don’t have a definite answer on how he’ll vote in the EU referendum.

Labour should, apparently, set out its own position on reform negotiations – which is fine as far as it goes. But almost nothing on David Cameron’s shopping list is going to appeal to Jeremy – and I doubt anything on Jeremy’s list will appeal to Cameron. The only real question is how much further Cameron will succeed in taking the EU away from Jeremy’s ideal.

If Jeremy might vote No, what would be his alternative? The European Economic Area (most of the free-market regulations without any say)? A Swiss model (slightly fewer regulations, slightly more say, but not a model the rest of Europe will ever offer)? No deal at all (and new tariffs on half our trade)? What makes him think Britain would discover the joys of radical socialism after voting with UKIP? And how does it help climate change negotiations to weaken one of the better players in said negotiations?

Again, this isn’t a policy. It’s a vague statement that the EU should be different, with no route map to change it.

The list goes on. You can’t talk about a ‘wealth tax on massive incomes’, fail to recognise that wealth and income are different things, conflate annual wealth taxes with one-off windfall taxes and expect to be taken seriously. You cannot talk about £50 billion of uncollected tax as though you can easily collect it in one fell swoop and expect anyone to think your sums add up. You cannot describe ‘not reducing our deficit as quickly’ as ‘funding’ free tuition and expect anyone to trust you not to wreck the public finances.

We’re not the Green Party: we’re supposed to be choosing a future Prime Minister. You cannot ask to govern a country with policies like these – not because they’re unelectable, but because they’re unworkable. Nuneaton wouldn’t buy Jeremy’s pitch: but we shouldn’t even be trying to sell it.

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7 thoughts on “Corbynism (or why Nuneaton has a point)

  1. 1. Jeremy is committed to building more, too. I don’t think he advocates rent control as the unique solution to the housing crisis. Your discussion gives the impression you think the other candidates somehow offer a better alternative. Do they? this is far from clear. They are if anything much more vague than Jeremy on this matter, who has speaking about the crisis and working with local people on the matter for many years.
    2. I don’t think he’s been so vague about the EU. After all, he’s said he wants to stay in, provided it protects our rights. Vague statements about the EU have been made by all candidates.
    3. I can’t comment on NATO specifically, but as regards trident, it seems a total waste of money. It is after all, premised on the idea that other european countries without a nuclear deterrant are somehow more at risk… a laughable proposition. I don’t think Germany is at any more risk than we are at this present moment, so to speak as if we had special need to maintain a nuclear deterrant is a function of ignoring the wider european context.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Luke.

      1. Jeremy has said he wants to build more, which is of course welcome. So have all the other candidates. The reason I haven’t gone into that is twofold: I wanted to keep the piece under 1,000 words, and I wanted to give an example of a specific policy which I think is incoherent and damaging. That holds good whether or not Jeremy wants to build more homes. I’d also say that there are good reasons not to give a detailed prospectus in a leadership bid: we’re nowhere near the stage of a parliament where we should be outlining our full pitch for 2020, and the main thing to focus on is what the broad analysis of the candidates is. But you don’t need to be at a detailed policy-making stage to see that this would be highly damaging: nor do you need to be at that stage to know that building more houses is not a matter of simply snapping your fingers. Reading through Jeremy’s policies, I can’t see a clear indication of how he proposes to ensure the necessary level of homes: removing the cap on local authority borrowing for housebuilding is something I’d welcome myself, but doesn’t address all the other issues behind reluctance to build (and doesn’t make their borrowing capacity limitless either). No candidate has given a comprehensive plan, but a) nor would I expect them to and b) none of the others have proposed something this silly in the meantime.

      2. So what exactly would count as ‘protecting our rights’? Leaving the Social Chapter outright presumably wouldn’t, but what about stronger wording on the 48-hour working week? I’m afraid the others aren’t comparable: I agree that Andy has used language I’m not ecstatic about, in particular, but they are all clear and unequivocal that they will vote and campaign to stay in. Jeremy is not: he will apparently consult with the Labour movement on what to do if the outcome is sufficiently sub-optimal. (Incidentally, what’s wrong with simply pledging to opt back into things we opt out of in the event of a Labour Government, rather than considering leaving irrevocably?)

      3. I deliberately didn’t mention Trident: although I am firmly in favour of a nuclear deterrent myself, this is an issue on which reasonable people disagree. So this is a response to something I never actually said in the piece.

      Since you raise it, though, the collective nuclear umbrella is the main point when it comes to European security and nuclear weapons. That comes principally from the US and to a lesser extent from the UK and France (along with the nuclear sharing agreements). My objection to ending our own capacity is mainly rooted in a) my commitment to the NATO alliance and b) my concern for European defence if and when the transatlantic umbrella is furled.

      Becoming a non-nuclear weapons state (and, especially, making it legally impossible to resume our status under the NPT) is a risk I am reluctant to take without being very sure that the US umbrella won’t be removed in the foreseeable future. If and when it is, the capabilities of Britain and France become all the more important in a European context. Abolishing our nuclear capability would actually be one very good way of encouraging US disengagement: Washington is already increasingly weary of Europe’s inability to get its act together on its own defence.

    2. This is looking at the nuclear issue the wrong way. Countries like Germany actually sit snugly under the Nato nuclear umbrella, whilst smugly announcing to all and sundry how beastly they think nuclear weapons are, in a manner which I find fairly contemptible.

      1. Germany actually participates in nuclear sharing, so I don’t think it would be fair to portray them as looking down from a great height. But no, I certainly don’t see why countries which rely on the NATO nuclear umbrella but don’t have nuclear weapons themselves should be deemed to have any moral superiority over the US, the UK and France.

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