John McDonnell’s speech showed what Labour’s aim for this conference – were it going smoothly – is. The party wants to present a domestic policy agenda so radical that it drowns out discussion of Brexit. As the progress of this conference shows, though, that’s going to be very difficult.
The shadow chancellor announced plenty of attention-grabbing policies: Labour will reduce the average working week to just 32 hours without cutting pay, it will end in-work poverty, restore full trade union rights, introduce free personal care, and even commit to ‘reparations’ to developing countries for climate change.
He only spoke briefly on Brexit, but even in this short section, he differed from the leadership line by saying once again that he would campaign for Remain. Jeremy Corbyn’s current stance is that he will remain neutral while negotiating a new deal, but that he will allow his shadow cabinet to take their own positions, while also expecting them not to take a position on changing the party position before the election (this isn’t supposed to be clear, in case you’re wondering).
But then McDonnell quickly returned to domestic policy. There were so many commitments in this speech that are bold – possibly even unaffordable – that it was strange that he didn’t make a more radical pledge on social care.
Today, the shadow chancellor only promised that Labour will introduce personal care free at the point of use in England. He did concede that this was ‘the first building block in our new National Care Service’, but his policy has come under attack from the King’s Fund, a respected independent think tank, which has said ‘there is little detail in how these aspirations will be delivered and what it will cost’, as well as pointing out that ‘free personal care is not the same thing as free social care, and some people would still be left facing catastrophic costs of care’.
The 32-hour week has naturally got the most interest. But Labour hasn’t given much information on whether this is possible – its own commission on a four-day week has suggested that it’s not – or how much it would cost the public sector.
In this instance, it might be more convenient for the shadow treasury team if the Brexit row did overshadow this speech, as it means there will be far less scrutiny of it.