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If Labour's time is now, they need to start acting like it

Outside of Brighton, the Sussex Downs rise like an impenetrable wall that, for any cyclist who has done the London to Brighton route, can take an aeon to climb. 

This week one could be forgiven for thinking that the same line of hills suddenly became a home for investors, chief execs and anyone else who had a vested interest in the UK’s economic welfare.

Investors could be “running for the hills” hollered the CBI, forecasting impending doom on the back of shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s pro-interventionist speech on Monday.

The CBI, like many industry commentators, had a right to feel concerned. After all Mr McDonnell had promised to bring all PFI “in-house” and also “nationalise construction” – both comments that had to be later clarified by the Labour press office.

While many parts of McDonnell’s speech should be viewed as a politician playing to a home crowd, the outside world does pay attention to the rhetoric spewing out of the party conferences. 

After McDonnell’s speech, one industry expert told me: “We really don’t know what is coming next from our politicians.”

Quite.

Labour are not in the same place as they were a year ago.

With a (arbeit) narrow lead in the polls and facing a Conservative party which could be about to blow itself apart at any moment, Labour may find itself in power next year, or even next month.

Speaking at the conference today, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed this ambition, stating that Labour was a “government in waiting”.

Yet the party is yet to learn that, in a world where (despite the insanity of it) a tweet could lead to potential war, words matter.

That is why, when a man who would-be chancellor of the exchequer decides to adlib his list of state nationalisations, it will be taken seriously. And he needs to take them seriously too.

Though Corbyn and McDonnell are cut from a different political cloth than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, when the Blair government came to power in 1997, it did so with a clear programme of what it would achieve in the first 100 days in office.

The phrase “fully costed” is often used, but fully thought through is probably as equally important. McDonnell’s PFI comments look far from the finished article.

And, because of these issues, it difficult to weigh up exactly what a Labour government could mean for construction.

On the one hand, consigning PFI to history and nationalising swathes of industry could cause inward investors to press the pause button.

On the other, the schools estate has been promised a £13bn boost. Tidal power will get the green light and Crossrail 2 won’t have to fight tooth and nail for funding.

Alongside that, the Labour party would seek to establish national and regional investment banks to stimulate growth, a lot of which may end up filtering its way into the construction sector. A lot of this is positive news.

The potential return to boom and bust spending plans could of course end in tears. But would staying in the customs union, a position increasingly close to Labour’s stance, be a better prospect for UK plc?

And of course both Corbyn and McDonnell’s comments cannot be considered in isolation.

Depending on the outcome of the Conservative conference next week it seems that construction - like the UK as a whole - has two choices.

Either, live with an inward-looking Britain, wary of migrant labour, as espoused by the Right, or one where barriers between private and public sector (and a lot of extra infrastructure and construction spending) may be erected once again by a resurgent Left.

As Sky News’ poltical editor Faisal Islam summed up in his reflections on the June election, the UK needs to choose between nationalism and nationalisation.

If Labour is to truly be ready for government, the time for real policies is now. The UK needs rational decision-making, and carefully thought out policies that can provide the stability the country needs, not a party of protest. 

As one European negotiator likes to remind Theresa May’s government each time it decides to come out with a rash comment, the clock is ticking.

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