Labour’s radical ‘free broadband’ pledge has caught others off-guard, writes Lesley Riddoch
Prince Andrew’s car-crash TV interview is the undisputed talk of the steamie. But what’s caught the attention of voters in the more sober, general election campaign?
The weekend, some sections of the media got their final chance to inflate costs and distort details of Labour policy before its “most radical” manifesto is finally launched on Thursday.
The biggest headlines were just a rehash of last week’s scares. Immigration - it seems half the world will come here if Labour wins. Trident - no-one knows if a victorious Jeremy Corbyn might use SNP pressure to cancel the nuclear weapons system or stick meekly to the official party line. Labour’s attempt to contest Sky News’ “Brexit Election” slogan has been used to make the party look feart. And there’s now the inevitability of a “landslide defeat,” as predicted by the King of pollsters John Curtice and artfully embellished by every right-leaning newspaper in the land.
Meanwhile the Greens suggest the climate emergency is a far higher priority for young people and in Scotland, hundreds of thousands of votes are already committed to opposing stances on independence.
But free broadband.
With one unexpected policy announcement, Jeremy Corbyn stopped everyone in their tracks.
It’s nationalisation, but not as we know it.
Of course, most voters realise that Labour plans to take rail-operating companies, energy supply networks, Royal Mail, sewerage and England’s private water companies back into public ownership. These are pretty popular suggestions. Rail nationalisation’s been helped along by the Government’s successful management of the East Coast franchise and the prospect of more state intervention apparently explained Labour’s surprise victory in Canterbury during the 2017 snap election. But for all the attractiveness of nationalisation as a solution to over-priced, sub-standard privatised services, the word itself has the stale air of a British Rail sandwich.
With one clever policy announcement, Labour’s shaved half a century from the rather aged and bristly image of nationalised industries. The choice of young, ubiquitous, fun and essential broadband as the standard bearer for public ownership in the 2020’s, has freshened its appeal and modernised the appearance of the Labour party. After all, how can anyone suggest that Jeremy Corbyn lives in an outdated 1970s bubble, when the technology behind the Labour leader’s most popular policy wasn’t even invented back then?
The broadband announcement threw Labour’s critics onto their collective back foot. Boris Johnson lamely attacked the proposal as a “crazed communist scheme”. Media experts and industry analysts struggled to explain how Britain’s superior, privatised telecoms system had provided just 7 per cent of households with superfast fibre broadband, compared to a whopping 70 per cent in Spain and Portugal. BT representatives were left weakly suggesting that without competition, the price of connection for British households would rise.
You don’t have to be Che Guevara to spot the massive logical and evidential hole in that argument.
The world’s fastest mobile broadband is actually provided on the tiny Faroe Islands by the state-owned company Faroese Telecom (FT), after the country’s powerfully devolved parliament, which governs these 18 rocky islands between Shetland and Iceland, simply told FT to get on with it. No complex tendering procedures. No pointless fragmentation of the work to give multiple private companies and their shareholders a slice of the action. No big delays and no lack of ambition. If they were able to fibre-optic the Scottish Highlands, Faroese Telecom would be in there like a shot.
Equally, the Faroese government-owned Atlantic Airways gets passengers from Edinburgh to Torshavn faster than any private British carrier can reach Shetland - which is 200 miles closer. The secret is better planes, and the point is that government-owned companies can be extremely effective.
Faroese broadband isn’t free. But even if there’s argument ahead about costs, Corbyn has managed to create a parallel between the information superhighway and road infrastructure that’s always been free at the point of use. And that’s got everyone talking.
Likewise, the idea of a four-day working week.
Thousands of white-collar staff already work less than the “standard” Monday to Friday. Home working is normal in London - not just because flexible days and hours are popular amongst staff, but because staff waste less time in long, exhausting commutes thereby raising productivity and some “hot-desking” cuts down on the cost of large city-centre offices.
But what’s sauce for the goose is never sauce for the gander in the OECD’s most unequal country, which was also the last European state to give employees statutory holiday pay. “Perks” that are normal for higher paid workers are still dismissed as somehow shocking and laughable when applied to everyone else.
Yet thanks to automation, a reduction in working hours is as inevitable as it is attractive to voters, so long as it doesn’t excuse lower pay. Likewise, the idea of a basic income, which is about to be piloted in four Scottish council areas.
Now clearly, one or two arresting policies, does not mean that Jeremy Corbyn is suddenly freed from the appearance of dithering over Brexit and Scottish independence. Nor can he escape the endless political virility tests set by the British media over the way he stands at the Cenotaph or his (humane) lack of enthusiasm for pushing the nuclear button. Prince Andrew’s headlong fall from grace might at least ease the pressure on Britain’s most famous Republican - for a while.
But Labour’s broadband and working week proposals have unexpectedly enlivened the election and could yet create a policy-rich debate, in which the leaders who cynically pledge more cash for the very same policies as the next man or woman, will look seriously stale.
Is that going to happen? The media doesn’t know whether to take Labour’s proposals seriously, the opposition doesn’t know whether to ridicule, change or outdo them. Even the normally lithe SNP has been caught a bit flat-footed, since its big announcements are generally hatched at Scottish not British elections.
The polls say Corbyn can’t win. And he certainly can’t be let out alone on during Scottish visits. But his radical manifesto means the next Labour leader could inherit an irreversible leftward shift in policy, which meanwhile prompts copycat action by the Tories.
And who knows.
South of the border, Corbyn could just win.
No matter what John Curtice predicts, it ain’t over till it’s over.