After months of extremely poor poll ratings, Jeremy Corbyn is relaunching for 2017. The Labour leader is focusing on a changed vision for immigration after Brexit and calling for a cap on high earnings.
Corbyn’s team has clearly come to the view that principles are not enough—Labour needs to adjust to meet the demands of the evolving electoral marketplace. The goal seems to be to tap into the rising tide of populism sweeping Western democracies. How successful he has been at joining the trend, though, is open to debate.
The Brexit plan
Corbyn is presenting a paradoxical vision of life after Brexit, just weeks away from the government’s deadline for triggering Article 50. His main message is that Labour is not wedded to the European Union principle of freedom of movement, but he does want to remain in the single market.
As has become increasingly clear since the EU referendum, it’s difficult to envisage a scenario in which the EU would allow one but not the other (short of a seismic shift in the European political landscape). Freedom of movement is one of the EU’s four founding principles and various national leaders have said that it is simply not up for negotiation.
One of the failings of Labour’s EU referendum campaign was that the public fundamentally didn’t believe that Corbyn himself wanted to remain in the EU. In many of his media appearances, he seemed to struggle to muster much enthusiasm for the cause. After a lifetime of anti-EU rhetoric, people weren’t prepared to believe that he’d had a sudden road-to-Damascus conversion.
The ideas he is now presenting are an attempt to rectify this—and they are probably a closer reflection of his personal beliefs. The question remains, though, who the target audience is here. The many Labour voters in the north who have fled the party in favour of UKIP are unlikely to be won back with vague promises about doing away with freedom of movement at some point in the future. At this stage in the Brexit debate, they are looking for solid proposals, and Corbyn still isn’t delivering.
Nor is it clear that his ideas will win back support for Labour in Scotland. Scottish voters are known to have been among those most in favor of remaining in the EU and are broadly supportive of immigration. Corbyn’s approach is therefore unlikely to end the SNP’s dominant position.
Then of course there is the fact that Corbyn’s arguments will probably alienate the large number of Labour supporters who voted Remain and are still extremely uneasy about what Brexit means for them. Many support free movement, or at least have concerns about what kind of immigration system will emerge from Brexit negotiations.
Corbyn is also floating an idea about capping high earnings in the U.K. This is an idea that might play to certain sections of his core base, but I suspect it will go down like a lead balloon in most of the country.
In some cases, high earners have legitimately added tens, hundreds and even millions of pounds worth of value to their companies. They’ll ask why their company should benefit from that hard work, but not them? Equally, people who run their own companies and make millions will wonder why they bothered. Would they be forbidden from paying themselves a certain wage?
On many levels, this idea is unworkable. It also guarantees that in every interview from now on Corbyn is going to be asked what amount he’s going to set it at. Anything short of a clear answer will just prompt further questions, distracting Corbyn from any other policies he wants to pursue. And he has already shown extreme reluctance to put a figure on his plan.
Politically and economically, it would make more sense to focus on raising wages at the lower end of the scale. Most Labour voters are more concerned about their low wages rather than what people are earning at the very top. Like the briefly mooted discussions about women-only train carriages, I suspect that this idea will be quietly dropped at some point in the future.
Overall then, I think this relaunch will ultimately cause more problems in the short to medium term for Corbyn, and is unlikely to significantly turn around Labour’s electoral fortunes in the long term. Worse still, from Corbyn’s perspective, it also severely risks undermining his position with the very people who enthusiastically elected him as leader.