World / Politics | ANALYSIS

Jeremy Corbyn has a radical Labour message. Can he sell it to Britain?

Bloomberg

Jeremy Corbyn pulled no punches as he presented the country with his plan for a Labour government, the most radical proposed since 1983, when the party suffered its worst postwar defeat.

Railways, water supply and broadband infrastructure would be brought into state ownership. The government’s total tax revenue would rise by around 10 percent. That would fund pay rises for public sector workers, free university tuition and free care for the elderly, among a long list of other goodies.

He also had a full list of enemies: “The billionaires and the superrich, the tax dodgers, the bad bosses and the big polluters.” These, he said, were the people “who profit from a rigged system.”

To activists in Birmingham, central England, for the launch, it was a dream come true. Britain’s Labour Party has a long tradition of accusing its leaders of betraying the beliefs of the party, stretching through Tony Blair back to the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. But on Thursday, no one was telling Labour members that they had to trim their ambitions to match the timidity of the electorate.

There wasn’t much focus on Brexit. Like the Conservatives, Corbyn feels the nation is weary of hearing about it. Though Prime Minister Boris Johnson accuses Corbyn of having an unrealistic plan, his proposal to negotiate a close relationship with the European Union in three months is no more implausible than Johnson’s own promise to negotiate and sign an advanced free trade arrangement by the end of 2020.

Corbyn’s analysis is that voters are sick of the current debate, and also tired of the country’s creaking infrastructure, tired of stepping over homeless people, tired of waiting for hospital treatment and tired of schools being underfunded, and are ready to pay for things to get better — or, rather, are ready for someone else to pay for things to get better; the tax rises he proposes are carefully aimed at companies and the wealthy.

Traders in London say Labour’s proposal to introduce a broad financial transaction tax risks paralyzing trading activity in the city.

The party said Thursday it plans to raise as much as £8.8 billion ($11.4 billion) a year from levies on trades such as derivatives or large volumes of currency, where London currently dominates the market.

“Doing this will drive up costs and won’t raise taxes, as people will find other ways to trade,” said Alasdair Haynes, chief executive officer of Aquis Exchange PLC, a European stock trading venue. “It shows they don’t understand the repercussions and the disaster it will create. It’s extremely dangerous.”

Labour is not alone in considering a financial transaction tax. European Union lawmakers are mulling a levy on share trades, and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has said a tax on various transactions could fund college education.

Britain already imposes a tax on stock transactions, set at 0.5 percent on purchases of U.K.-issued shares. This generated more than 3.5 billion pounds in 2017-18. Should it win power, Labour would extend that levy to help minimize short-term trading.

Financial services generated £75 billion in British tax in 2017-18, amounting to more than 10 percent of U.K. tax receipts, according to the City of London Corp. Its policy chief, Catherine McGuinness, warned earlier this year that a financial transaction tax could drive business away.

Although the rest of the world views the election as a plebiscite on Brexit, health care is the most important issue on voters’ minds, according to the polling service Ipsos MORI. As threats grow to the National Health Service’s mission, staffing levels, nonprofit ethos and the $200 billion annual budget, major parties are pledging fealty to the 71-year-old program.

Corbyn has offered to add £26 billion ($34 billion) in health spending. He has proposed ambitious goals aimed at improving Britons’ well-being and social supports, including heftier mental health services, child care and maternity leave. He has also proposed the creation of a state-funded pharmaceutical company aimed at improved drug affordability.

Johnson is touting the Conservative Party’s planned £20.5 billion investment in the health service over the next five years, along with a promise of 40 “new” hospitals — which turns out to mainly involve renovations. He said he would postpone a planned cut in business taxes in part to fund priorities such as the NHS.

Two-thirds of the U.K. public think Johnson’s government is handling the NHS badly, according to polling by YouGov, and Labour repeatedly returns to the subject.

Labour is offering plenty of things that will look attractive to plenty of people. Whether they decide to vote for it will depend on whether those people look at Corbyn and see a prime minister who could plausibly do any of these things. And there, polls have him struggling. After the first head-to-head debate with Johnson, only 29 percent said Corbyn came over as the more prime ministerial of the pair.

The manifesto doesn’t lumber Corbyn with the problem of trying to sell something he doesn’t believe in, which has made him look uncomfortable in the past, particularly on Brexit. It also is a reminder that he is a party leader quite outside the British political consensus of the past three decades. But its domestic focus takes the spotlight off areas where he is most radical, especially on foreign affairs, where his historic views are hostile to the U.S. and to NATO.

It is also worth remembering that Corbyn’s path to power doesn’t necessarily go via gaining seats in Parliament. If he can simply hold all the seats Labour currently has, and the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party can take some off the Conservatives, it will become very hard for Johnson to stay in office. So the question is whether this package can keep existing Labour voters on board.