Jeremy Corbyn has just delivered one of his better party conference speeches. It wasn’t just because it was much shorter than the average political address, but also because it made clear that Labour knows what it wants to do when it gets into power. There were a lot of policies in there. Some had popped up in other speeches this week, like the plan for free personal care.
Others were new and very significant indeed, like the plan to take on pharmaceutical companies. This is Labour’s ‘Medicines for Many’ programme which will make government funding for medical research conditional on the drugs being offered at an affordable price to the NHS, and set up a state generic drugs manufacturer of patent medicines so they can be supplied at a much lower cost to the health service. A policy like this will change the way medical research in this country works, but given the costs of setting up that research, it may not necessarily lead to more cutting-edge drugs being produced. Pharmaceutical companies are not angels – they are selective in their handling of trial data and spend vast sums of money wooing doctors, albeit to a far lesser extent than in other countries – but they do currently fund and drive very expensive and difficult clinical work in a way that is not always recognised, not least because the charities operating in this area are very adept at taking credit.
Big Pharma is another one of those enemies of the left, along with the media (who Corbyn attacked yet again in his speech), entitled Tories (not hard to attack given today’s Supreme Court ruling) and big business (Thomas Cook). But Corbyn’s speech did go beyond just attacking Labour’s favourite bogeymen. We do have a very clear idea of what Labour wants to do as soon as it gets into government, whether on transport, education, tackling climate change, reforming social care, or left-behind towns. He failed to make sufficient use of the party’s conference slogan ‘People before privilege’, mentioning it just once. That’s not enough to stick it in the heads of those in the hall, let alone voters. The party is clearly hoping individual policies will be what do stick.
Whether these policies are workable, affordable or at all sensible is one thing. It’s another matter again whether anyone will pay any attention to them when Corbyn is in charge and has the worst personal ratings of any Labour leader for 45 years, or when the party has chosen to have a deliberately ambiguous Brexit position, just as the government is on the verge of collapse over the way it has been trying to deliver Brexit. This speech was moved forward because of the Supreme Court judgement, and will quickly be forgotten in its aftermath. But some of its policies are worth proper examination, not least because they may end up doing the very opposite of that which they promise.