Corbyn’s gambit: Hands up who wants free broadband?
Cantillon: Eye-catching UK Labour move doesn’t have to be feasible to be vote-winner
Jeremy Corbyn plans to deliver fast and free full fibre broadband across the UK if the Labour party wins the upcoming election. Photograph: Peter Byrne/AFP via Getty Images
The Irish electorate has been no stranger to dangled freebies in election manifestos, but for audacious vote-grabbers that send rivals scrambling fast to rubbish them, the UK Labour Party’s promise to provide free broadband for all is in a class of its own.
The very simplicity of Jeremy Corbyn’s massive pledge, which it claims it can achieve through the part-nationalisation of BT and taxes on tech companies, has forced Boris Johnson into some similarly grand dismissals, opting in the first instance for “crazed communist scheme”.
Labour has estimated the cost of guaranteeing universal fibre broadband to UK consumers by 2030 at £20 billion (€23.4 billion), while BT reckons it will be closer to £100 billion – a somewhat different figure, all told. Either way, it’s an ambition that certainly puts the scale of the Republic’s notoriously shovel-resistant €3 billion National Broadband Plan into perspective.
Notwithstanding the actual feasibility of the UK plan, there’s a touch of sheer political genius about it – and it’s not every day you can say that about Corbyn’s Labour.
On the cusp of a new decade, its stance that “what was once a luxury is now a basic utility” will undoubtedly have some major cut-through. And with Britain’s privatised train and water companies seemingly in competition with each other mainly to see which can generate the most complaints, there are plenty who will be receptive to the nationalisation message too.
At the very least, this alluring infrastructure gambit will help heighten general disgruntlement with the Brexit-distracted Conservative government as voters turn around, look at all the things that have gone wrong or cost too much in their lives, and see Johnson faffing about on his battle-bus.
The only real problem will come if Labour wins. Then the campaign to make free universal broadband a “treasured public institution for the 21st century” will inevitably condemn the party to a decade of “shovels in the ground next week, we absolutely swear this time” media interviews while voters anxiously tap their smart-watches and take their chances with 5G instead.
As for the Irish plan, the European Commission may have given it its seal of approval, but it’s not quite a “shovel-ready” reality just yet. When it is, it won’t be free.