Rishi Sunak’s recent budget was going down like a lead balloon amongst a significant proportion of Tory backbenchers until he reiterated his long-term commitment to reducing taxes [a very non-specific motherhood and apple pie commitment for Tories; code for a yet further shift away from direct to indirect taxes, helping the better-off at the expense of the worst-off], just in time to salvage his post-Thatcher credentials. None of this convinced a number of commentators who focused on the apparent generosity of his spending plans and suggested that he had stolen Labour’s clothes. This was interpreted in terms of a Johnson/Sunak dynamic, analogous to the Blair/Brown dynamic of yesteryear – in effect, a ‘Johnson budget’ that rejected the idea of austerity in order to claim the centre ground of British politics. Not a policy recipe that the Chancellor might prefer, but one that his leader deemed necessary to retain the goodwill of an electorate prepared to abandon its old tribal loyalties.
Jeremy Corbyn’s brief reign as Labour leader was forgotten in these analyses, notable only as a left-wing template that Keir Starmer is keen to move away from – hence the ease with which the ‘stolen clothes’ characterisation is made. I am not at all comfortable with these ideas. I just don’t see that they fit the facts. To start with, it is worth taking a close look at Corbyn’s supposedly ‘hard left’ policies. Suffice it to say , these would have looked anything but left wing in the decades immediately prior to Thatcher. Indeed, one can imagine that a Tory prime minister like Macmillan might have embraced these policies, pausing only to argue that their implementation would be more effective under a Conservative administration than in Labour’s hands.
Corbyn’s ‘hard-left’ reputation was all part of the bogeyman mythology that grew up around him. Perhaps the only element in this that was to some degree justified was his over-reliance on nationalisation as a remedial fall-back – this without a well worked out plan for how nationalisation might improve matters. At the same time, some of his most vilified policy suggestions now, with the benefit of hindsight, look positively inspired. Not least amongst these was the idea of broadband as a free universal utility – it has taken covid-19 to demonstrate how critical this is to our economic infrastructure.
To see Corbyn’s real achievement we need to go back to the reaction to Sunak’s budget. The very idea of stealing Labour’s clothes, of failing to deliver a tax-cutting budget, demonstrates a move to the political centre on the part of the Tories. The Corbyn/McDonnell axis returned Labour’s focus to a pre-Thatcher form of socialism, one where public sector activity, particularly in relation to historically low rates of investment, is seen as a viable remedy rather than an ideologically poisonous no-go area. The impact of this has been to reframe the national economic conversation and move politics back to the centre ground it had vacated for four decades. This may not have been Corbyn’s intention, but it has clearly been his achievement.