Just how radical are Labour’s conference pledges?

The Guardian, by Michael Savage
28.09.19

Some policies grabbed the headlines – but others could turn out to be revolutionary

It started with an attempt to topple the deputy Labour leader and was marked by noisy in-fighting over the party’s Brexit policy. Yet by the end of Labour’s annual conference in Brighton, senior allies of Jeremy Corbyn believed that they had paved the way for the most radical election manifesto seen in Britain for decades.

So many announcements were planned that one key policy – the decision to radically reshape universal credit and pump some £3bn back into the benefits system in the short term – was cut out of Corbyn’s speech and revealed on Saturday instead.

The policies are as numerous as they are wide-ranging. The aim of a four-day week, a state-owned drugs manufacturer, higher tax for free social care, the reversal of many legal aid cuts, a potential net-zero carbon target of 2030 and free prescriptions are among them. These are on top of controversial plans already announced, such as allowing workers to gain a stake in large companies.

“Yes, lots of policies aren’t as radical as they sound – universal credit wouldn’t actually be scrapped and nor will private schools – but it would be odd not to describe this as a radical programme,” said Torsten Bell, head of the Resolution Foundation thinktank. Although Labour has said it will “scrap” universal credit, it will not drop all aspects of the payment. Similarly, the private schools motion will be watered down.

Bell added: “Most importantly this programme is radical by volume of what is meant to be attempted in a short time. In practice serious prioritisation would be needed.”

The next key moment is the party’s so-called clause V meeting, held to decide which policies end up in a manifesto. Motions passed by the grassroots to seize the assets of private schools and extend free movement will be jettisoned. Huge questions remain as to how the various programmes will be funded, but senior Corbyn allies believe it will be enough to turn an election that was meant to be all about Brexit into a wider conversation about public services. So what were the most significant policies unveiled in Brighton?

Immigration
What happened?

The conference voted for a motion to “maintain and extend free movement rights” for EU citizens – despite the role immigration played in the referendum campaign. It also told the party to “reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business, and number caps/targets”. It contradicted Labour’s previous manifesto commitment that “freedom of movement will end”.

What’s the reality?

There is no question that the Labour leadership is open to looser immigration rules, but Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, has been clear that the party backs a work visa scheme. That would not allow free movement to continue.

Radical rating ★★★☆☆
Ripping up immigration rules is radical and Labour will take a liberal approach, but whoever comes to power will have to introduce a completely new system after Brexit.

Pharma
What happened?

The surprise announcement in Corbyn’s conference speech was a plan to create a state-owned drugs company capable of making cheap versions of medicines that are too expensive for the NHS. Such a reform would be likely to require patents to be bypassed. It is a big step and an attempt to curb what Labour regards as profiteering by Big Pharma.

What’s the reality?

A big measure. The pharmaceuticals industry is warning that it will undermine research by discouraging investment in new drugs, and puts smaller companies at particular risk. However, Labour says its plan is similar to policies already used in other countries.

Radical rating ★★★★☆

This was a new and surprise move from Labour that would take the state into a new arena.

Four-day week
What happened?

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, announced the most radical measure of the Labour conference – a pledge to move to a 32-hour week “within the next decade”, with no loss of pay.

What’s the reality?

The details of the policy are rather different to the headline. Businesses will not have a four-day week imposed on them. Instead, Labour will use a series of smaller measures to work towards a reduction in hours.

A new commission will recommend increases in holiday entitlement to push down average working times. Meanwhile, the really radical element is the introduction of sector-by-sector collective bargaining with unions.

Radical rating ★★★★★

It is far from a top-down plan to slash the working week, but there is real radicalism in this measure because of the hugely enhanced role for trade unionism that it implies. The party has not spelled out how that would work in practice.

Social care
What happened?

Labour committed to bringing in free personal care for the over-65s in England as a way of easing the social care crisis – at an estimated cost of £6bn. Labour also backs a cap on lifetime care costs. The move will be funded out of general taxation.

What’s the reality?

It is a big and expensive policy, but reaction to it has been lukewarm from experts in the sector. There are two main concerns. The first is that social care is in such a state that the priority should be stabilising the current system through the expansion of services and retention of staff. The second is that the plan does not cover all care costs such as accommodation, meaning anyone risks being exposed to huge costs if they require serious care.

Radical rating ★★★☆☆

There is big money involved, but Labour will need to spell out the details of its cap on costs and its funding plans.

Education
What happened?

The conference passed a motion calling for the assets of private schools to be redistributed “democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions”. The motion, which was driven by the party’s grassroots, was denounced by critics for creating a dangerous precedent of the state seizing private assets.

What’s the reality?

For all the coverage, it was immediately clear that the plans to seize the assets of the private school sector were not supported by the Labour leadership, which is currently promising to end tax reliefs and other state aid. Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, has signalled that the party wants to go further over time. Meanwhile, her vow to abolish Ofsted is a major change, as is the idea for a National Education Service, which the party has not yet fully sketched out.

Radical rating ★★★★☆

Labour will not seize private school assets, but its education policies represent a major break and private education looks set to face a serious challenge.

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