Ioan Marc Jones: The left needs to up its pub appeal
Jeremy Corbyn's policies are based on ideas that friends in the boozer struggle to grasp after the third beer and the fourth explanation.
The New Statesman recently put together an enviable team of voices from the left for their New Times series. It included Blairites and Corbynites, social democrats and radical socialists. The series offered an insightful evaluation of the principal problems facing the left: political apathy, approaches to immigration, the loss of working class support, the woes of globalisation and so on.
The New Times series seemed emblematic of the general lack of direction on the left. It brilliantly identified the problems, but offered little in terms of solutions. It was a diagnosis without a cure. It is obvious, indeed, that the left has lost ground in recent years and their policies are failing to resonate with the electorate. It is equally obvious that the left has to change, but commentators are failing to suggest original ideas to incite such change. The few ideas on offer – and there are very few – seem complicated and thus difficult to sell to voters.
One hears brief mutterings among the left-wing commentariat, for example, about universal basic income and the progressive taxation of wealth. These are ideas that liberal friends in the pub struggle to accept after the third beer and the fourth explanation. They are policies that campaigners tire of explaining to swing voters; the very reason folks don’t get out of bed on Saturday morning.
Universal basic income is progressive and radical enough to appeal to active left-wingers, but foolish enough – depending, as it does, on tax increases for all – to ensure the left is incapable of electoral success. It creates practical problems – questions over the tax required, the amount offered to each individual, compensation for ailments and the issue of immigration – and thus seems overtly complicated whether in the pub, on television or on the voter’s doorstep.
Wealth tax is similarly difficult to sell due to even more complicated issues. The primary problem faced by parties advocating such a tax, which the Greens faced during the last general election, is the valuation of wealth. Calculating an individual’s savings is difficult due to the privacy offered by certain banks – as witnessed during the Panama Papers scandal – and to evaluate one’s overall wealth requires taking stock of their assets, which creates myriad administrative problems – imagine, for example, attempting to accurately ascertain overall wealth based on jewellery, cars, clothing, works of art and so on.
Ed Miliband’s Mansion Tax sought to tax wealth through housing and avoid burdensome administrative problems. It was a simplification of the wealth tax, to be sure, but it unsurprisingly created a host of other problems. The first and most obvious was that it did not take into consideration an individual’s overall wealth – and thus it inevitably ignored stagnant, hoarded money, which is the least productive for the economy and should be the target of politicians. Second, the Mansion Tax unfairly punished those who earn low wages, but have seen their properties increase exponentially in value – potentially pushing people out of their lifelong communities. Third, the tax can have a negative effect on the housing market by disincentivising building – who would build houses, after all, if they are heavily taxed?. The supposed simplifications are not so simple after all.
George Orwell said that successful politicians are great advertisers – he meant that pejoratively, of course, but the point remains – and new ideas on the left would struggle to fit in small writing on an M25 billboard.
One reason Cameron’s Conservatives were electorally successful was their ability to sell policies with slogans – the long-term economic plan, the low welfare and low tax economy, fixing the roof while the sun is shining and so on. Similarly, the Leave campaign had folks across Britain declaring that we should ‘take back control’. And most recently, Donald Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ – as empty as it seemed – ensured his ascendancy. The British left at present has no such readily identifiable policies and thus no such slogans. They are unable to advertise. Jez We Can means very little, after all.
Corbyn, indeed, is a product of the left’s lack of direction, but not the solution. He once represented ideas that, while not enough to constitute a successful platform, offered a semblance of direction. Under Corbyn, I presumed, the left could reach out to find new policies. I felt that these policies would form the basis of the new direction. In this regard, Corbyn has invariably failed.
Consider the loss of economic talent once at Corbyn’s disposal. In his first months as Labour leader, Corbyn amassed a team of some of the world’s greatest economists: from the most pronounced voices on global inequality to Nobel Prize winners. Some of these economists, however, have stepped down, citing the leadership’s unwillingness to consult, while others seem perspicuously underutilised. Danny Blanchflower left after claiming that he seldom spoke to the leadership and Thomas Piketty also jumped ship, although his justification was less obvious.
The unwillingness to reach out for new ideas is Corbyn’s greatest failure. Corbyn’s attractiveness was dependant on the creation of policies that both reflected his social values and offered a new direction. The voices of prominent economists, along with their potential policies, are either lost or not given enough credence. Labour’s current economic platform seems at best incoherent, at worst empty. Corbyn was a symptom of the left’s lack of direction and now he seems the cause.
There are few pub conversions to the left these days. There exist no slogans to represent bold ideas. I can only tell folks the problem, but I have no solutions. I can recite the question, but I can give no answer. I am unable to sell Labour these days due to the incoherence of their policy. The left are verily lacking direction and the directionless path, as we all know, leads nowhere.
Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images