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Jeremy Corbyn has described the “chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower” as a monument to a failed economic and housing system in the UK as he set out Labour plans for city-wide rent controls and a crackdown on gentrification projects.
The Labour leader used his speech to his party’s first annual conference since stripping Theresa May of a parliamentary majority to deliver his long-held ideological vision for Britain, declaring the neoliberal economic model “forged by Margaret Thatcher many years ago” as broken.
Corbyn said his views, once seen as on the fringes of the Labour party, now represented the centre ground, which he said had shifted from where “establishment pundits” claimed it to be. “This is the real centre of gravity of British politics. We are now the political mainstream,” he said, contrasting Labour’s enthusiasm with a Tory party he claimed was “bereft of ideas and energy”.
In a deliberate break from the economic policies of Tony Blair, Corbyn promised more state intervention in housing and utilities and said he was ready to increase taxes on big business, in a 75-minute address to a sometimes rapturous audience in Brighton.
The Labour leader emerged into the hall to chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” from cheering delegates, some of whom waved red scarves above their heads. “It is quite infectious. Let’s make sure the whole country is infected with the same thing,” he said of the enthusiasm in the hall.
Corbyn reserved his most detailed proposals in the speech for housing. He promised that a Labour government would ensure tenants on estates being redeveloped would be allowed to return to them once they were rebuilt.
Councils would also have to win ballots of local residents before being allowed to embark on regeneration projects. Land held by developers but not used would be taxed, Corbyn added.
He promised that cities would be given the power to control rents, and his advisers indicated that he wanted to go further than a pre-election promise to limit rent rises to the inflation rate. “Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections,” Corbyn said.
Labour sources said the party would be looking at models of rent control in cities across the world as part of a review, and said the property market was “dysfunctional”.
Corbyn said: “We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers and have the power to compulsorily purchase. As Ed Miliband said: use it or lose it. Families need homes. No social cleansing. No jacking up rents. No exorbitant ground rents. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower,” he added, quoting the poet and novelist Ben Okri.
Corbyn’s clear shift to the left and promise to rein in free markets came as Theresa May prepared to make a spirited defence of capitalism in a speech on Thursday to mark 20 years since Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, made the Bank of England independent.
The prime minister, who began her professional life at the bank in 1977, was expected to say: “A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.”
Labour sources said Corbyn’s vision was not about dismantling capitalism, but about rebalancing the economy with more state involvement.
The speech drew widespread criticism from business groups, who said they were opposed to more state intervention and felt Labour was not representing their interests, even though some of the policies such as rent control and utility nationalisation appear popular with the public.
The CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn said there were “few warm words” from the Labour leader. “Repeated rhetoric on the sins of a handful of businesses does little to reassure anxious entrepreneurs and investors about the UK’s future as a great place to do business.”
Corbyn argued that the election result had forced the Tories to drop policies including the so-called dementia tax, plans to means-test the winter fuel allowance, proposals for more grammar schools and the prospect of fox-hunting being brought back in. “They seem to be cherry-picking Labour policies instead, including on Brexit,” he said.
“I say to the prime minister: you’re welcome. But go the whole hog – end austerity, abolish tuition fees, scrap the public sector pay cap.”
He argued that the Labour party was ready for government and sought to contrast it with the state of the Conservative government, mocking May’s election slogan by saying: “They are not strong and they are definitely not stable. They are hanging on by their fingertips.”
Corbyn also attacked the media in the speech, saying they were “under instruction from their tax-exile owners to destroy the Labour party”. He said one paper had devoted 14-pages to attacking Labour, and the party’s vote had gone up by 14 points. “Never have so many trees died in vain,” he said, adding provocatively: “Here is a message to the Daily Mail editor: next time make it 28 pages.”
He said Diane Abbott had borne the brunt of much of the abuse – a line that prompted the audience to rise in standing ovation and sing happy birthday to the shadow home secretary. “She suffered intolerable misogynist and racist abuse,” he said. In a nod to the party rule change on abuse passed on Tuesday, he went on: “There can never ever be any excuse for any abuse of anyone, we are not having it, not accepting it, not allowing it.”
However, Corbyn was criticised by some commentators on social media for failing to explicitly mention antisemitism after controversy over comments made at a fringe event.
The Labour leader’s heaviest attack on the Tory government came over Brexit as he accused them of having a “hopelessly inept negotiating team” and putting “posturing for personal advantage” over the national interest.
After a week in which Boris Johnson was accused of undermining the prime minister and chancellor before and after a critical speech in Florence, Corbyn said: “Never has the national interest been so ill-served on such a vital issue. If there were no other reason for the Tories to go, their self-interested Brexit bungling would be reason enough.”
Facing pressure from his own party on Brexit over calls to remain permanently in the European Economic Area and maintain free movement, Corbyn promised Labour’s approach would guarantee “unimpeded access to the single market”. He promised an approach to Brexit “that puts our economy first, not fake immigration targets that fan the flames of fear”.
And he promised: “We will do politics differently. And the vital word there is ‘we’. Not just leaders saying things are different, but everyone having the chance to shape our democracy”. He said Labour would make “business accountable to the public, and politicians truly accountable to those we serve”.
There was a limited number of new policy proposals, including a promise to change the organ donation law and warnings of fines for big companies that failed to complete gender audits. Several policies from the party’s 2017 election manifesto were repeated, including a pledge to nationalise the water industry.
But there was a backlash from business. Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce claimed there were concerns with both main political parties, “with one flirting with fantasy economics while the other engages in an unedifying playground bust-up”.
Stephen Martin, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that while business leaders weren’t expecting praise they would be disappointed to hear nothing positive about companies “large and small, that form the bedrock of our economy”.
The Conservatives claimed that the cost of enacting all of Labour’s pledges had now spiralled to £312bn. Damian Green, the first secretary of state, said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s speech summed up the problem with Labour: lots of big promises, but no explanation of how they would deliver them.”