From ex-LAB MP Nick Palmer
Traditionally, the left has always put inequality of income and wealth at the core of its appeal. All the way back to Marx, the argument was that a small number of rich people were rigging the system to benefit themselves, and if you are working-class and on a stagnating income, you need to band together with other working-class people through Labour and the unions to change matters. With middle-class sympathisers, this would potentially make up a majority.
This is still the reason for Labour loyalism among many, but it’s been gradually undermined by several factors. First, the working-class vote has declined. Second, classic Marxist economic theory, as practised in the Soviet countries, hasn’t worked well. Third, globalisation has introduced a certain sense of powerlessness from the very top down – yes, we can tax the big corporates and the rich, but won’t they just move to the next country willing to indulge them? The right feels they’ve won the economic argument decisively.
Nonetheless, the way capitalism has evolved strikes many, perhaps most, people as essentially unfair. Working hard might make you rich, but a more likely route is to inherit wealth and find a good tax lawyer. Setting up your own company sounds attractive, but you find yourself competing with people thousands of miles away with lower wages and/or more tax benefits than you can hope for.
Nor is access to good jobs easy, despite all the efforts to improve education and university chances. If you’re the child of a low-income family, perhaps with other disadvantages (few well-educated relatives and friends, drugs, non-English background, whatever), the idea that you might become a heart specialist or a banker seems outlandish.
So a lot of people are pretty fed up – hence Trump and populism. But there’s a less-remarked tendency too throughout the West: the rise of a leftism based on culture and emotion rather than a supposed tough economic strategy. Do you dislike big companies, inequality, consumerism, racism, homophobia, sexism? Are you sympathetic to underdogs and developing countries? Then you may feel attracted to a party that doesn’t have an especially coherent economic agenda – they are simply on your side culturally. And unlike the economic field, the cultural trend is very much to the left. When I grew up, it was common for people to express mildly sexist, racist or homophobic views: it’s now seen as downright embarrassing.
Take Germany. Everyone talks about the rise of the far-right AfD, but in fact they’re only marginally up in the polls since the last election. The dramatic rise is the Greens, who have nearly doubled, and who with the Left Party now form a quarter of the German electorate. Take France, where the angry leftism of Melanchon has eclipsed the traditional social democrats. Or Spain, Greece, Sweden, Netherlands, Ireland – in slightly different ways, each country is seeing a rise in the non-traditional left. (See here for documentation of all this.)
This irritates people on the right who thought that winning the economic argument was enough – you’re a leftist, you want Soviet or even Venezuelan economics, eh? Get real, you social justice warrior! But this misses the point. The underlying dissatisfaction with the economic order is being channelled into a cultural agenda where the left is dominant. People who vote Green in Germany aren’t assessing them as likely stewards of sound economy. They simply feel that this is the party that stands up for their values.
That’s relevant for British politics too. Young people aren’t attracted to Corbyn because they think he’s got all the answers on economic policy, though they like his rejection of austerity and think he would make some progress in reducing inequality. Nor are they are a cult in love with the man as an individual.
But they identify with the underlying agenda and they like the way he sticks to his guns on it. That makes classic attacks on Labour less effective. If the choice is an anti-EU Tory party with an anti-Muslim fringe or a Labour party which is broadly in line with the instinctive culture of the times, many people will go with the latter even if they’re not really convinced of the economic case.
Actually governing effectively on that basis is difficult, as Syriza found, which is why the hard-headed discipline of McDonnell matters to Labour: commitments to push taxes through the roof and let public spending rip are notably absent. If Labour wins, it won’t be because people think it will make them rich; rather, that it will make Britain more culturally attuned to the times. And the mildly EU-agnostic leadership is actually rather closer to the average voter than either zealous Brexiteers or passionate Europhiles.
Brexit feels to many people like a traditional old-fashioned nationalist project which won a majority with the help of people worried about immigration. The danger for the Conservatives is that their obsession with Brexit will turn out to be neither economically helpful in the short run, nor effective in addressing immigration concerns, nor in keeping with the international outlook of younger people. They are in danger of looking tired, ineffective and old-fashioned, and losing the election for those reasons alone.
People like Gove and Javid recognise that and are trying to do something about it: more greenery, more housing, and so on. But do most Tory members? Or will they simply vote for whoever is unscrupulous enough to offer them the most hardline Brexiteer rhetoric (hello, Boris)?
Ironically, they may find that this is a choice that leads Britain to a Labour government. And one which brings us back into the European orbit with an association agreement that we will all struggle to distinguish from full membership. Life is sometimes more circular that we think.
Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe, 1997-2010