It’s been five days since Labour’s new leader was declared, and the party is facing a number of serious questions about what it actually stands for.
Jeremy Corbyn was known for his unequivocal stance on many matters in the past, and now all eyes are on him to see whether he’ll deliver on the principles which led to his election.
As if by habit though, his new shadow cabinet keep on suggesting things that sounded “old Labour”, if one can excuse the term. Like, for example, support for a benefits cap, or remaining in Europe.
So what are they saying at Labour HQ, FactCheck asks? We try to pin them down.
Labour social services minister Barbara Castle campaigning for Britain to leave the Common Market (Image: Getty)
The European Union: in or out?
Labour’s leadership may have been pro-EU for about the last three decades or so, but it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in the Common Market on renegotiated terms, Harold Wilson’s government campaigned for an “in” vote. When the prime minister suspended collective cabinet responsibility, the cabinet split.
Industry Secretary Tony Benn and Michael Foot, then secretary of state of employment, were against staying in, along with the TUC and a little-known councillor in the London borough of Haringey, Jeremy Corbyn.
Later, Foot was a eurosceptic, but from Neil Kinnock onwards, Labour embraced Europe.
Fast forward to Sunday night, and things look different. Chuka Umunna, former shadow business secretary, quit the shadow cabinet negotiations claiming Corbyn hadn’t guaranteed the party would campaign to stay in Europe at all costs.
Hilary Benn, the new shadow foreign secretary, then said the party would be campaigning to “remain in the European Union in all circumstances”.
Hours later, Corbyn told party members in a private meeting that David Cameron should not have a “blank cheque” in his negotiations ahead of a referendum.
While Corbyn outlined his position on a number of things on his Labour leadership campaign webpage, his position on Europe wasn’t one of them.
So what do you say, Labour?
In an interview with Channel 4 News last night, Mr Corbyn said that his instinct was to “battle to stay” in Europe, but Labour wanted to see “a Europe of worker’ protection, a Europe of social protection”.
We asked the Labour press office whether the party was committed to staying in Europe. They said Labour “has always been committed to not walking away, but staying in to work together for a better Europe”.
What about now? “Being in Europe has protected and improved workers’ rights in Britain,” a spokesperson continued, adding that “if we want to protect workers’ rights the answer isn’t to leave the EU, but to get rid of this Tory government.”
No firm yes or no, so what about Corbyn? Will he campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum?
A spokesperson said: “As Jeremy Corbyn has said: Labour should set out its own clear position to influence negotiations, working with our European allies to set out a reform agenda to benefit ordinary Europeans across the continent.
“We cannot be content with the state of the EU as it stands. But that does not mean walking away, but staying to work together for a better Europe.”
FactCheck still isn’t clear whether that’s a yes or a no. The spokesperson added: “Jeremy Corbyn will be setting out a more detailed position on Europe later this week.”
Benefits cap: yes or no?
Again, Corbyn’s policy documents on his campaign page don’t specifically say whether he is in favour of a cap or not. He simply advocates a “lower welfare bill through investment and growth not squeezing the least well-off and cuts to child tax credits”.
In May, Harriet Harman, then interim Labour leader, said the party was “sympathetic” to cutting the maximum amount a family can receive in benefits by £3,000, to £23,000, as long as children were not put into poverty, homelessless would not increase “or end up costing more than it saves”.
On Tuesday, Corbyn told the Trades Union Congress conference in Brighton that the coalition government’s benefits cap created “social cleansing”. “The amendments we’re putting forward are to remove the whole idea of the benefit cap altogether,” he said.
Hours later, Owen Smith, shadow work and pensions secretary, said that actually, the party only opposed the government’s plans to reduce the cap. It would be “foolhardy” not to limit what families could receive in benefits, he told BBC Two’s Newsnight.
The following morning, Kate Green, shadow minister for women, sought to clarify the party’s position. Corbyn’s position, she told the Today programme on Radio 4, was not the current policy of the Labour Party, which supported the principle of the benefit cap. She claimed there was evidence it had helped people into work.
Over to you, Labour…
So is the Labour Party now opposed to, or in favour of, the benefits cap? No firm answer, but they didn’t advocate abolishing it altogether, as Corbyn proposed.
“Labour is in favour of reducing overall Welfare Spending, which is why we support the Overall (Structural) Welfare Cap of c. £120 billion,” a spokesperson said. The party would oppose reducing the cap from £26,000 a year to £23,000 or £20,000 a year, the spokesperson added.
What about Corbyn, we asked. Does he support it or not? No answer.
“Labour is in favour of reducing overall Welfare Spending, which is why we support the Overall (Structural) Welfare Cap of c. £120 bn,” a spokesperson said.
Last night Mr Corbyn said “his proposal” was that the current benefit cap should not be imposed, but if the party disagreed he would accept their decision.
Nato, in or out? Trident, yes or no?
As national chair of the Stop the War coalition, Corbyn has long been an advocate of withdrawing from Nato and not renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.
This he does make clear in his policy documents: “Not renewing Trident gives our country an opportunity to invest in industry, innovation and infrastructure that will rebalance our economy and transform it into a high skilled, high-tech world leading economy.”
In June last year, he said that Nato was “the major driver for the remilitarisation of central Europe”. He asked David Cameron about Nato’s “expansionist role” and whether it could “provoke increased military expenditure by Russia in the region”.
Corbyn added: “More than 60 years of Nato membership has brought us enormous levels of military expenditure and by our close relationship with the US through Nato and the Mutual Defence Agreement involved us in countless conflicts.”
Not according to his deputy, Tom Watson. Watson is not only in favour of remaining within Nato, but hopes to convince his boss of the same. In May, Watson said Labour should back the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
After decades of campaigning on the anti-war platform, will Corbyn’s position become party mantra?
It doesn’t look like the party will be advocating leaving Nato any time soon. A Labour Party spokesperson said: “The Labour Party’s policy agreed at the National Policy Forum is that Nato remains the cornerstone of UK defence policy and the sole organisation for collective defence in Europe.”
What about Trident?
Last night Mr Corbyn told Channel 4 News: “I’ve just been elected leader of the party with a mandate drawn from an enormous party and supporters electorate.
“I put it out there that my view was that when the vote comes in parliament in 2016 as it probably will, we should not vote to renew trident because I want to see us fulfil our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.”
But a party spokesman told FactCheck: “Labour’s position, as agreed by the National Policy Forum in 2014 and approved by Labour Party Conference, is that we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent.
“It would require a clear body of evidence for us to change this belief.”
Is that it?
But in case anyone wonders why they may have elected Corbyn at all, the spokesperson had this to add: “Given the very clear positions Jeremy Corbyn took in the leadership election, in which he obtained an overwhelming personal mandate, Jeremy Corbyn will be setting out in due course how Labour’s defence policy will develop.”
So again, it’s a case of watch this space.
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