A guest slot by CycleFree
It has become a truism that political campaigns based on fear are doomed to fail. Positive visions, hope and excitement are what we want, apparently. And there is some evidence to support this: Corbyn’s genuinely inspiring campaigning for what he has said and believed these last four (five?) decades, the increasingly desperate Remain campaign and, of course, May’s abysmal GE campaign, which wholly failed to explain why Corbyn’s choices and what they say about his character, judgment and, therefore, how he would govern would affect voters and in ways which resonated with them.
But is this entirely true? Labour’s campaigns have always stoked fears that the NHS will be destroyed if the Tories are in power. Leave’s campaign last year was based in very large part on fear of foreigners, specifically fear of Turks and young male migrants/refugees from unsavoury parts of the world. Corbyn would likely never have won as many middle class/middle aged voters as he did were it not for the latter’s fear that the Tories would take their homes and savings in old age if they fell ill, a fear skilfully exploited by Labour with the “dementia tax” label. In both the latter cases, the campaign which won (the referendum or argument) was the one which best exploited people’s fears as well as presenting an appealing vision of a better way (No University Fees! Keep Your Home! Freedom from the EU!) however unachievable, superficial or lacking in detail that vision may have been or, in the case of Brexit, is now being shown as being.
And so to this week’s Labour conference. Forget the now inevitable argument about whether Labour is tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks (it isn’t and it won’t). Forget the ignorant insults aimed at a 96 year old man and his grandson (take a bow Emma Dent-Coad, MP for Kensington. That’s just what your Grenfell Towers constituents elected you for). Forget Shami making a fool of herself yet again suggesting laws one doesn’t like can be ignored. After all she is only following an earlier Baroness and Attorney-General who thought laws were only for others. Forget even Corbyn’s speech: undoubtedly well received in the hall and elsewhere.
No. The most significant thing said this week was McDonnell’s statement that the next Labour government would not be a “traditional” Labour one. We would be well advised to take this statement seriously. Traditionally, Labour governments have all sought to reassure as well as be radical: reassure voters that the economy would be safe, if more fairly run, that taxes would only be on the rich, that public services would be nurtured and valued, reassure business that Labour would invest, reassure the markets that Labour would be a sensible custodian of the nation’s finances.
McDonnell’s and Corbyn’s primary aim is not to reassure, other than as a tactic. It is to change very radically Britain’s economic and political settlement. And the “run on the pound” and “war gaming” remarks are not an error. They are an indication that they intend seeing their measures through and taking whatever steps may be necessary to do so. The fact that these may be unprecedented or harmful or have unintended consequences or hurt those who have voted for them may count for little or nothing. So what might these measures be if, say, money starts flowing out of Britain the day after McDonnell gets made Chancellor? Capital controls? Temporary bank closures? Limits on how much people are allowed to take out? A tax on all savings held in banks in the UK above a certain limit? Conversion of savings into bonds or shares? Seizure of savings above a certain limit?
Alarmist? Improbable? Why? All these things happened to ordinary people in Cyprus a mere 5 years ago. Sure they happened as part of a bank bailout and were blessed by the EU and there were special circumstances: the fact that so much Russian and other “dirty” money was in Cyprus made it easier for some to justify. Still, if it happened there, it could happen here and justifications would be easy for Labour to construct. No-one loves the rich or the markets or bankers, especially if they are seen as obstructing an elected government. For the past 30 years or so, the assumption everywhere has been that you can’t – or shouldn’t even try to – buck the markets. But bucking the markets is exactly what Corbyn and McDonnell want to do. The Tories would do well not to underestimate both the breadth of Corbyn and McDonnell’s vision nor their determination.
If those opposed to this want to make the case for why it will be harmful, they need to start some war gaming of their own. They need to explain how such measures will affect ordinary voters now, not by reference to the 1970’s: not “the markets won’t wear it” or “remember Callaghan and the IMF” but “you won’t be able to pay for that foreign holiday or buy stuff from Amazon in Luxembourg” or “20% of the money Mum had put by for her care has been taken” or “the money saved/to be given to us as a deposit for a home will be in shares you won’t be able to sell for years” or “Dad has to pay a wealth tax on his house out of his pension and can’t”. They need to start demolishing, forensically, item by item, those Labour proposals which won’t work – and only those – and they need to start making the case now.
Fear of losing what you have is a powerful motivator, as the reaction to the dementia tax showed. Fear of being made worse off is equally powerful, as the reaction to university fees and interest rates on the loans also showed. It is a key part of any effective campaign. It is not the only one, of course. It won’t necessarily win on its own. So we will have to wait and see for the Tory Conference whether the Tories are capable of attacking Labour intelligently or only each other and, more critically, whether they have any positive story to tell the country.