By Thomas Judge
THE idea that the Conservative Party has run out of ideas and looks to the Labour party for inspiration is not new.
Policies that were previously in the Labour manifestos of Brown and Miliband were reused by May. Now, Johnson has taken this practice further by taking from Corbyn’s offerings to boost his premiership.
This trend does not look to be slowing down, and some choice policies may find themselves being announced by the Conservative leader very soon.
If this practice continues, what will it mean for a battered Labour Party, and a defeated left? Will this phenomenon hurt the Conservatives in the long run by shifting the public perception on transformative ideas?
Be it rail-nationalisation, the green new deal, or borrowing to invest, there is no denying Johnson’s government is enacting ideas first championed by the left. But he is not the first to do so.
Theresa May was notably guilty of this. In 2017 the Conservative leader announced plans to take on the energy market, which she said was not working for everyday people. She tried implementing a cap on prices, a key Miliband pledge from 2015, but it was quashed by those to her right in the party.
She went to the 2017 election with this in the manifesto hoping to increase her majority’s flexibility and get it through – among more important matters – but that gamble infamously backfired. But intervention into a specific market for the good of the consumer is not a typical right-wing argument to make.
A significant moment in early 2020, before the pandemic hit, was the re-nationalisation of Northern Rail. The rail franchise has been emblematic of the north’s lack of investment, and taking it out of private hands was overwhelmingly popular with its users and the public. Of course, this has been championed across the left and by Labour for some time now, with Corbyn even making it his first official policy after becoming leader in 2015.
The franchising model of rail had been falling apart for years – and now thanks to Coronavirus looks to be completely dead – but this showed a significant shift in utilising state apparatus to better citizens’ lives.
Later in 2020, with his image in tatters, and his competence in question, Johnson needed a popular idea to distract. He chose the Green New Deal, only slightly rebranded as ‘The Green Industrial Revolution’. Following Dominic Cummings’ departure, and when Covid cases were beginning to spike again, Johnson committed to a series of pledges on tackling climate change.
The actual policies are a far cry from what Corbyn’s Labour proposed, but the rhetoric was there, and it signalled a massive shift for Johnson, who has happily sat in the climate sceptic camp for some time when it better suited him.
What’s left to take?
With austerity deeply unpopular, the government will likely avoid any straightforward return to slashing budgets. With this in mind, it seems likely that tax increases will occur to plug the gap in public finances. Johnson’s position as a populist will not lead him to tax working and middle-class earners, but instead those with enough wealth to bear it.
There are rumblings about this occurring amongst the political classes, and a possible storm brewing among Tory backbenchers for whom this would be a very unnatural move. But again, it is a prevalent idea thanks to its championing by a left-wing Labour party.
Post-Covid may see more ideas enacted that originated with Labour. Given that Christmas and the festive period was a bust, and the only mandated time away from work each year, it seems Johnson announcing extra bank holidays is likely. If we ever get to a post-pandemic world where the entire economy is open again, this would be a possible way to stoke growth after a year of decline.
When Corbyn proposed this in 2017, to create four new permanent bank holidays on the patron-saint day of each nation in the union, the press mocked it as a bribe for working people. But the unseen – unseen by those who mocked it – popularity of the idea could mean it is likely to be taken up by a government which feeds on popularist appeal.
It is now coming up on a year since the first lockdown, and many are becoming used to home working. With many now accustomed to this, it seems unlikely things will snap back exactly to how they were.
This change, coupled with rising unemployment, could lead to a reduction in working hours for swathes of the economy to encourage employers to hire extra staff to fill gaps.
The idea of a four-day week was floated in the 2019 Labour manifesto and was again ridiculed by the Conservatives as entirely unfeasible. However, a four day week, probably just for white-collar workers, could boost productivity and lower unemployment post-pandemic, when growth will be needed solely to keep the economic model viable.
Who comes off looking smug?
The Conservative Party’s becoming adept at cherry-picking the most popular ideas and making them their own can be read in several ways. If they continue down this path, where does this lead the Labour and Conservative Parties?
By taking the words and phrases of the most popular Labour policies from the last few years, Johnson could permanently take the wind out of the party’s sails, specifically the party’s left. If it turns out the Conservatives can implement the best parts of Labour policy without being Labour, why bother changing allegiances?
Furthermore, with Starmer moving away from the ‘transformation’ message and towards a ‘more of the same but with some competence’ line, Labour isn’t going to increase its vote share on the back of big ideas as it did in 2017.
Conversely, if the Conservatives keep doing the things the left has championed for years, it may spur people to follow the ideas back to their source and take votes with them. Why vote for the pale imitation when you can vote for the real thing?
It is clear that despite having left the leadership and the party now moving in a different direction, Corbynism has had a significant impact on politics and leaves a legacy, despite never winning government.
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