There is a tendency in the British media to immediately react to every policy announcement from Labour with absolute hysteria, regardless of how beneficial it would be to millions of people. Jeremy Corbyn could push a policy that forbade the murdering of orphans, and centrists would urge us to consider whether all orphans really deserve to survive. Labour’s latest policy announcement, free full-fiber broadband for all, paid for by taxing tech giants like Facebook and Google, then partly nationalizing British Telecom, falls precisely into that category. Millions of people do not have access to fast broadband, nor any broadband at all in rural areas, and everyone else pays £30–45 a month for intermittent service.
The policy would help combat isolation among older people, and broadband is increasingly a prerequisite to applying for jobs or benefits — it can hardly be deemed a luxury. Yet huge numbers of people on the right and center, including failing former Labour MPs in the doomed Change UK/The Independent Group farce, rushed to decry the idea and fight for our right to pay billionaire Richard Branson for spotty broadband as well as appalling trains.
With the policies announced so far, Labour are continuing their strategy from 2017, offering a pragmatic utopianism in manifesto offerings: straightforward and easily achievable policies that can instantly improve the lives of millions, that are easy to sell while campaigning online and on the doorstep. They are easy to understand and lend themselves to memes, and voters can immediately envisage what difference these policies will make to their lives and families. Four more bank holidays? More time off work spent with family and friends. A year of maternity leave and more flexible paternity leave? Ditto. Free broadband? At least £30 off your bills each month.
The approach stands in stark opposition to the way politics has worked for years: other parties continue to offer technocratic and complex policies; Labour tends to push simple, memorable policies, in addition to the belief that society can be fairer and life can be better.
Corbyn’s critics remain stumped by why he is so popular, attributing the popularity to a cultish mindset when, in fact, most Labour supporters aren’t wildly obsessed with Corbyn as a person, but by what he represents and how he differs from the status quo. Centrists argue that Labour’s plans aren’t achievable and are too radical. What this means in practice is that a better life isn’t possible. Having free broadband or more bank holidays is only seen as utopian because British political thinking has completely stagnated — because, for years, Labour and the Conservatives narrowed their political horizons and massively limited their ambitions. Arguing for the status quo relies on instilling fear that things can’t get better.
The tactic also risks backfiring: on BBC Radio 4 in the morning, one presenter asked Labour, “What next? Free water?” Many people listening undoubtedly thought, simply, “Yes.” Responding to every policy announcement with sarcasm and querying why Labour don’t go further only encourages people to think they should. Pragmatic utopianism sits in direct opposition to a stagnant centrism that seeks at most to take the worst sting out of problems rather than to solve them. The backlash to these Labour policies only reveals how wedded to a damaging status quo Labour’s comfortable critics remain.