John McDonnell has a plan. The Labour party’s would-be chancellor prefers Marx to markets. So he intends to nationalise the energy, water and railway industries, impose big tax rises on businesses and wealthy individuals, shackle the banks, and pump up public spending and borrowing. The organising goal, he told the Financial Times in a revealing interview, is “an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people”.
This is not the first time Britain’s main opposition party has had a far-left moment. In 1983 the then leader Michael Foot produced what one of his MPs later dubbed the longest suicide note in history — a manifesto promising everything from nationalised banks to EU withdrawal to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Mr Foot split his party and crashed to defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher.
Times have changed. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is running at 40 per cent in the polls — neck and neck with Theresa May’s Conservatives. Centrist Labour MPs, battered remnants of the Tony Blair era of third-way social democracy, have tried and failed to topple him. Now they concede he could become prime minister. Young people have flocked to the 68-year-old Mr Corbyn’s cause. The angry mood that led to Brexit could yet give Britain the most leftwing government it has ever seen.
Look around Europe and populism has yet to run its course. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, founded by Beppe Grillo, has emerged from the latest election as the largest party. Runner up was the boastfully xenophobic League. Germany has a new coalition government, but at the expense of allowing the nativist Alternative for Germany to don the mantle of official opposition. Nationalism holds sway in Poland and Hungary.
- Europe’s centre left has lost voters’ trust
- What we have learnt about the UK Labour party’s John McDonnell
- Britain sees Europe through the distorting mirror of Brexit
In most of these places social democrats have been the victims of the populist uprising. Politics has been shunted rightward in the face of economic insecurity and public disquiet with immigration. The Brexit vote was part of the same identity story — the leading lights were English nationalists. In an important respect, though, Mr Corbyn has bucked the continental trend. By veering leftward, Labour has raised its own populist standard.
Many say the studiously affable Mr Corbyn is the cheery face of a programme written by his flint-jawed shadow chancellor. This is too crude a characterisation. The two have been socialists-in-arms for decades. That said, Mr Corbyn is never so happy as in the company of fellow socialist celebrities from places such as Cuba and Venezuela. Reluctant to give up tending his vegetable allotment, he lacks the concentration to plot revolution at home. The iron-willed Mr McDonnell offers every minute of every day to the mission of bringing down capitalism.
Not so long ago such a prospectus would have thrown business leaders into a panic. Perhaps Brexit has dulled their senses, but they have been remarkably quiet. Some say that were Labour actually to win it would soon enough be checked by the realities of power — whether financial markets or a relatively moderate parliamentary party. Others suggest that for all the hopelessness of Mrs May’s government, the British will not back red-blooded socialism. On past occasions when Labour has promised to soak the rich, Britain has run scared of its description of what constitutes “wealthy”.
Maybe. But a world in which Donald Trump can become president of the US and Britain can decide to uproot itself from its own continent is also one that could well accommodate Mr Corbyn in Downing Street. Voters have stepped out of the stereotypes. If we have learnt anything, it is that rage at the establishment can rewrite the old political rules.
Voters have stepped out of the stereotypes. If we have learnt anything, it is that rage at the establishment can rewrite the old political rules
The less convenient and more intelligent response to Labour’s popularity is to ask just how it is that an electorate known for its cautious pragmatism can first vote against its own economic interests by backing Brexit and then contemplate humming along with the tunes of unreconstructed Marxists.
Could this have anything to do with the fact that the incomes of most Britons have stagnated or fallen during the decade since the financial crash? Or that between 1998 and 2015, the incomes of FTSE 100 chief executives have quadrupled? Might it be because the industries that Mr McDonnell wants to nationalise are now run by avaricious, rent-seeking oligopolies?
Might there also be some link to the way the tax and spending policies pursued by the last two Conservative-led governments have rigged the system in favour of the affluent elderly by loading debt on to students and cutting services for young families?
What are people to make of the fact that the bankers who caused the crash are as grossly overpaid as they have ever been? Why should anyone believe ministers who contrive to blame junior doctors for a health and social care crisis triggered by deep spending cuts? Could things really get any worse, voters ask themselves, as they watch the Tories fight their private wars about Europe?
Like all the other populists, Mr McDonnell is selling snake oil. The reason voters could yet decide to give it a try has nothing to do with whether any of the remedies would work. Instead, the Marxists have learnt something from Mr Trump, the Brexit campaign and the rest: if the old elites are wearing blindfolds you can win simply by recognising something has gone badly wrong.
This article has been amended to clarify the size of the increase of chief executives’ pay.
Letter in response to this column:
Most of the problems facing the UK have nothing to do with Brexit / From Nicholas Wigdahl, Newmarket, Suffolk, UK