Jeremy Corbyn captivated the Labour Conference with his calls for a kinder politics and a caring society. His audience enthusiastically applauded the idea of seeking fairness and compassion. This is not surprising, since these are all aims that would be shared and expressed by many, if not most, people across the political spectrum. David Cameron would have received rapturous applause for the same words, as would Tim Farron.
It is not the aims that mark the political divide, but the methods that might be deployed to achieve them. It is not the intentions that matter, but the policies pursued to bring them about. Mr Corbyn’s speech was long on ambition but short on policy, though there were some policies, together with others in the pre-conference days, that enable us to picture the approach he would take, if not the detail.
I have at times advocated being a ‘deaf philosopher,’ not listening to what politicians say, but watching what they do, judging them by their actions and not their words. It is all very well talking about caring and compassion, but not much use if the policies pursued bring about drabber and more restricted lives for the people they claim to serve.
The Communist governments of the Twentieth Century uttered high-vaulting words of fairness and ‘rule by the people,’ but the reality they delivered was of squalid poverty and stunted lives. More than that, their rule was marked by a huge gulf in living standards between the party elite allowed to buy Western goods in special shops and the mass of ordinary people consigned to the endless queues for the shoddy products of a socialist economy.
Mr Corbyn talks of rent control, a policy no serious economist endorses. This is because it fails in practice. For a few it fixes their rents, but given non-market returns, landlords withdraw properties from the market, so availability diminishes. Moreover, with inadequate returns landlords do not spend to maintain properties as well, so they decline in quality. Fewer and poorer properties is not the intent, but it is the result.
Renationalizing railways and utilities is advocated to ‘put the people in charge,’ but in reality it means bringing them under political control. When they were under state control they were characterized by under-capitalization, producer capture, vulnerability to frequent industrial unrest, and services that paid scant attention to consumers. The talk was of one thing, the reality of another.
It will be very important during the coming months to make the case that real-world results matter more than high-falutin intent. We need to see what happened before in the UK, and what happens elsewhere when politicians attempt to impose ideas without regard to their actual results.