Britain’s policy bakeoff

The word “turbulence” does not do justice to the Hadron Collider pace of political change in Britain this summer.

The fallout from June’s EU referendum has yielded a new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, and a challenge to opposition Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, from a former colleague, Owen Smith.

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Samantha, wife of ex PM Cameron, on a bakeoff episode. The heat is on in Britain’s political kitchen this summer.

All three are desperate to distinguish themselves from the rest and tackle that old trilemma: balance what they want to do with what their party wants and what is good for the country overall.

So May has to carve out policies that adjust to the reality of Britain’s exit from the EU whilst distinguishing herself from her predecessor David Cameron. With her one final leadership opponent dropping out before a ballot began, the party constraint was eased.

She entered Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time with a speech which could easily have come from the mouth of a left of centre politician.

She highlighted the disadvantages of being poor, black or a white working class boy in Britain. Her theme was a “a country that works for everyone” whilst pledging “the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few.”

Here was a resounding echo of Tony Blair’s mantra of Labour working “for the many not the few.” And with that she made a new Conservative landgrab on fast-shrinking Labour territory.

She has already abandoned her party’s pre-referendum fiscal targets, recognising the economy will be weaker with Brexit coming and the likely need to provide a stimulus from public investment to boost sluggish growth rates.

Meanwhile, Labour’s second leadership race since the 2015 general election pits its left-wing Leader Jeremy Corbyn against a “soft left” contender, Owen Smith.

For most of the past year Corbyn has maintained popularity among party activists by sticking to the same lines of “anti-austerity”, anti military intervention and nuclear modernisation, pro human and trade union rights. Beyond this, he has offered discernibly few, if any, specific proposals for an incoming Labour administration. His strength has always been in protest, not policymaking for government.

But since the challenge from Owen Smith, following the no confidence vote in Corbyn from four out of  five of his Party’s MPs, he has suddenly been forced to give some details.

In his campaign launch speech he marked out what he intended to be a differentiator to Smith by proposing equal pay audits of employers with over 21 staff. It’s not a new idea as Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband backed it in 2014, albeit for organisations with over 250 employees.

This oversight illustrated the novelty of such policy work for team Corbyn. But at least it was recognition that the ingredients of a winning campaign have to include detail. This is especially so given that Smith has positioned himself also as anti-austerity,  having committed to a £200bn public investment in infrastructure, but also pro-prosperity.

In response, Corbyn has committed to a series of new policy pledges over the next few weeks. Forced by the contest, but having had ten months to do so since taking office, his inner circle will now suddenly have to leaven detailed proposals – from the economy, to health, to education and defence – to contrast with Smith’s in a short period of time. So far he has outlined “five ills” – inequality, neglect, prejudice, insecurity and discrimination. We await the remedies. It will be a hard and novel test.

As the election campaigns unroll, observers – like bakeoff judges – will be kept busy digesting and dissecting this new flow of policy ingredients. So standby for a summer of cooking and tasting in the Britain’s political kitchen. Steady with the vanilla.

 

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