Over the Christmas week UnHerd is republishing its favourite pieces from 2018
It is entirely plausible, likely even, that Jeremy Corbyn will be Britain’s next Prime Minister. Even before the Conservative Party’s Brexit meltdown, the surprisingly strong performance by Corbyn and the Labour Party at the 2017 general election left them needing only a 2-point uniform swing to take power as part of a coalition, or a 4-point swing to have a majority in their own right. Corbyn has consistently been closer to power than many think.
That is especially true today, after two moments have pushed Corbyn closer to Number 10 Downing Street. The first was in July 2018, when Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her ‘Chequers Brexit’. In the days that followed, the Conservative Party’s share of the vote tumbled from the low 40s into the mid-30s as disillusioned Conservative Leavers, angry with a perceived betrayal on Brexit, decamped to Ukip which even in the absence of Nigel Farage saw its poll ratings double. This handed a Corbyn a healthy lead of 5 points, more than the margin of error and more than enough to take Number 10. In the 14 opinion polls that followed Chequers, the Tories led in just one.
The Conservatives subsequently recovered, but only as people’s summer holidays and general confusion over the direction of Brexit temporarily knocked the issue onto the back seat.
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But then came the second moment, which is what we are living through now. Once again, after May set out the detail of her draft Brexit deal, Conservative voters were asked to focus on what was on offer. The result? Support for the Conservative Party dropped back into the mid-30s, Labour took the lead and support for Ukip bounced. Amid an incredibly polarised country and a tight race, the Conservative Party simply cannot afford a challenger on their Right-wing flank appealing to nearly one in 12 voters.
These moments reflect something deeper, that Theresa May’s Conservative electorate differs in important ways from that which followed David Cameron. It is more working-class, more pro-Brexit, more anti-immigration and contains fewer graduates. These voters are more purple than true blue, more instinctively socially conservative than socially liberal, and more supportive of economic interventionism than free-trade Thatcherism.
All this is a legacy of “Timothyism”; Theresa May’s former advisor Nick Timothy’s quest to win back Ukip voters while also regaining the trust of traditional Conservatives. The strategy, however, was only partly successful. Ukip was neutralised, but Prime Minister May was handed more fiercely pro-Brexit followers, voters who are used to abandoning the political mainstream to get what they want and who have thus left her with less room for manoeuvre.
All this bodes well for Corbyn. Even if the Conservatives manage to fend off a Ukip 2.0, they may yet find themselves confronted by a far more formidable opponent: apathy. With Leavers concluding that they have been betrayed by the Brexit deal and drifting into abstention, crunch marginal seats could easily fall into Labour hands.
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There are many Conservatives who still argue that this won’t happen; that the idea of Prime Minister Corbyn is for the birds, that those who voted for him in 2017 did so precisely because they didn’t think he would win, and that once voters get a proper look at the man they will pull back. But none of this is particularly convincing.
Certainly, Corbyn has weaknesses. He remains deeply divisive, both among his fellow Labour MPs and fellow citizens. Much of middle England, like the media, approach him with suspicion. When it comes to the triad of faith, family and flag, many are unsure of where his heart really lies. And this explains why his leadership ratings remain poor. Even today, amid the Brexit shambles, when voters are asked who they think would make the “best Prime Minister“, Corbyn finishes in a distant third, 14 points behind Prime Minister May and 16 points behind a mysterious figure called “Not Sure”. Corbyn has been at the forefront of our politics now for more than two years yet still only one in four back him for the top job.
Yet one key lesson to take from the Brexit and Trump revolts is that you do not need solid leadership ratings to affect radical change. An emotionally resonant message (Take Back Control… Make America Great Again… For the Many Not the Few) can be just as powerful as a charismatic leader.
We are also at a stage in British politics when Corbyn’s weaknesses are ‘priced in’; people have had him in their living rooms throughout an entire general election campaign and today Labour is still hovering around the 40% mark. Furthermore, work by the British Election Study shows that contrary to conventional wisdom it was precisely those people who expected Labour to win who were the most likely to vote Labour.
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But there are other, good reasons to argue why the fundamentals favour Corbyn. When you focus too much on the man you lose sight of his message. And it is the message, ‘Corbynomics’, which is cutting through. So to make sense of Corbyn’s appeal we need to step back to consider the wider landscape.
Most voters do not tune into the daily humdrum of politics, as underlined by the fact that until very recently nearly one in two Brits had never even heard of the customs union or if they had heard of it they openly said that they didn’t know anything about it. But while voters avoid the detail they do pick up on the general ‘noise’. And consider some of the noise in recent years; the Panama Papers; austerity and bankrupt councils; Carillion; obscene levels of pay for executives; the cost of rail tickets rising faster than wages; the rail timetable fiasco; the BHS pension fund scandal; widespread tax avoidance by Amazon, Google and Starbucks; rising inequality; and ex-politicians landing one lucrative job after another (witness Nick Clegg joining Facebook).
And on top of that big pile we can throw a divided Conservative Party, a divided Cabinet, the dismal handling of the Brexit negotiations and an incumbent Government that is saying almost nothing at all about domestic issues.
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Now, consider Corbynonomics. Labour will “stop the system being rigged”, “invest wealth to give everyone the best chance”, nationalise water companies, re-nationalise rail, regain control of energy networks, reverse the privatisation of Royal Mail, re-introduce a 50p rate of tax on those who earn above £123,000 per year, an income tax rate of 45p on £80,000 and above, increase corporation taxes, introduce an excessive pay levy, and reserve one third of places in company boardrooms for workers. All of this is couched in fervent opposition to austerity and that diffuse, yet potent, pledge to defend the many against the few.
Corbyn’s economic radicalism would already have appealed to large numbers of voters but today it is coinciding with a decisive shift in the wider climate of British politics. Support for raising taxes in order to spend more on public services has just hit a 15-year high. As the National Centre for Social Research points out, 60% of people want to increase taxes so as to spend more on health, education and social benefits, the highest since 2002. This is sharply up on the 49% in 2016, or the 31% when David Cameron came to power in 2010.
It is no surprise that most Labour voters want to see these increases. But what is striking is that so too do more than half of Conservative voters (53%). Thatcherites or passionate libertarians would do well to reflect on the fact that, today, fewer than one out of every 20 voters want taxes and spending to fall.
Brexit voters weren't duped by propaganda
Ever since the vote for Brexit we have heard much about Eurosceptic Conservatives wanting to turn Britain into a low-tax, low-regulation ‘Singapore-on-Thames’. I do not see much support for this. On the contrary, I see voters who are fed up with austerity and lots of more blue-collar Conservative voters who are looking for the state to stand up and protect them, not roll back regulation and unleash the free market.
There is widespread sympathy for Corbyn’s claim that the current economic settlement (if not economic globalisation more generally) is not working, that government needs to do far more for the many and much less for the few. While Corbyn did not create this shift, he is the main beneficiary. In 2014, before Corbyn’s rise, YouGov asked voters to choose between prioritising increasing wealth even it meant that distribution was less equal or prioritising a more equal distribution even if this meant that wealth was lower. Nearly six in 10 backed a more equal distribution over wealth, while even Conservative voters were divided down the middle. We have spent a great deal of time since the 2016 referendum wondering whether voters opted to make themselves poorer while losing sight of the fact that many people would happily be less well-off if it meant that society overall was more equal.
Corbyn is also tapping into a wider mood when voicing criticism of unregulated global markets and unfettered economic globalisation. The Blairite narrative was that there is a bullet train called globalisation, which is flying at 600 kilometres per hour and is impossible to get off. But this was never particularly convincing, as we discovered at the 2016 referendum. Many voters are more than willing to try and get off, or at least grab the controls. And most of them are increasingly sceptical of the destination. For instance, the Eurobarometer survey tells us that whereas more than half of British voters think positively about globalisation, and see it as an opportunity for growth, more than half also see it as a “threat to employment and domestic companies”, and worry that it is fuelling social inequalities. They accept that it is necessary but they also worry intensely about how it is changing society and apparently for the worse.
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In fact, at least on the economy, most voters instinctively lean toward Corbynomics and away from the Conservatives. Last year, the Legatum Institute found that when you present voters with a range of paired statements they generally leaned toward a protectionist and anti-free market position; most support capping the pay of senior executives, think that profit should only be one consideration among many, that government needs to do more to regulate how businesses behave, that businesses and government need to work more closely together, that some businesses are making so much profit that it can no longer be justified, and that companies have a responsibility to put their workers on company boards.
Indeed, when you look at the numbers you soon realise why Corbyn’s pledge earlier this year to ensure that workers are given a voice in company boardrooms is a no-brainer. In some polls, this is endorsed by 54% of all voters, climbing to 70% of Labour voters and is also backed by a plurality of Conservatives (39% support, 34% oppose, the rest are undecided).
Corbyn can also spend the next few years kicking ball after ball into an open goal. One such issue is nationalisation. Between 53 and 65% of voters support the nationalisation or renationalisation of energy and water providers, rail networks and Royal Mail, although in some polls the figures are much higher. Labour voters are more supportive but Tories are usually not that far behind; one recent survey found that 53% of Tories want Royal Mail back in public hands, 43% want the same for rail and 42% for water, although others have found that more than one in two Tories back the renationalisation of rail.
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When you see, as you do in the British Election Study, seven in 10 people saying “private companies running public services has gone too far or much too far” you begin to grasp the appeal of Corbynomics, even if Labour is evasive on how all of this will be paid for. And as we learned at the 2016 referendum, voters are perfectly willing to roll the dice for a new settlement even if the implications of their decision are never really set out.
When my middle-class friends in leafy Conservative commuter towns travel into London on packed, expensive and irregular trains and say “maybe Corbyn has a point” you know that his case for nationalisation is cutting through. The potency of nationalisation flows from the fact that it builds on people’s everyday life experiences. This opens the door to a much wider conversation about the economic settlement. If you agree with Corbyn that rail and water should be put back into public hands, then maybe you’ll stop and listen to what he has to say on corporate taxation or tax avoidance.
The problem for the Conservatives is that on many of these issues they appear to be saying nothing at all. This is why Corbyn’s strategists would do well to have their leader pictured each week amid crowds outside ticket-barriers in commuter towns and filmed talking to young families about their utility bills. It was 30-45 year olds not 18-24 year olds who swung hardest for Corbyn in 2017. These are who I call the “Things Can Only Get Better Generation”; raised under New Labour, used to investment in public services and instinctively socially liberal but also intensely worried about the cost of child care today and mum and dad’s social care costs tomorrow.
While the issue of Brexit remains all-consuming, and Conservative MPs are unlikely to pave the way for a fresh general election, look below the surface and you can see how the fundamentals in British politics are slowly shifting behind Corbyn and Labour. Most voters are not looking for a post-Brexit Singapore-on-Thames.
They are looking for action to rebalance an economic settlement, which they feel has been taking ordinary people for a ride. And they are clearly willing to roll the dice on an alternative settlement. Corbyn is tapping into this mood, even if the man himself remains unpopular. The question facing those who seek to stop him getting to Number 10 is how will they respond?