Sunday, 21 August 2016

There is nothing at all radical about Corbyn’s Labour

Everybody looks forward to summer. Unless of course you’re political animal in which case you’re in for six weeks of pure tedium as the entire political machine shuts down. It leaves us news junkies with little to cogitate. As far as politics goes there are only two stories. Brexit and the labour leadership contest.

The latter is of diminishing interest. It rather looks like Mr Corbyn is going to see off the challenge comfortably. And it’s easy to see why. Labour’s big beasts are more concerned with their career prospects than mounting an effective challenge. Losing in 2020 is a near certainty for Labour and none of them wants the job when it means a wipeout. Consequently the challenger is nobody with all the charisma of flat-pack furniture.

It seems that Labour has no-one to challenge Mr Corbyn’s appeal. He is well liked because he is a figure people can relate to. It’s not what he is. It’s what he isn’t. British politics in recent decades has been beset by a dismal ratings chasing trend whereby policy announcements are made on the basis of what their focus groups have told them – fighting over the centre ground.

The product of this has been bland managerial policy devoid of any principle or ideology pushed by anodyne people. You can barely tell them apart. There seems to be little point in voting when all of the major parties are chasing the same handful of voters and why bother with a political party chasing power for its own sake?

Labour as a party has largely forgotten who it serves and what it is for. A genuine movement is one that decides what it believes it, defines what it wants to accomplish and then goes out and sells it. Whether the agenda is popular or not should not matter. If you have the courage of your convictions you stand by what you believe and you build your movement over time. If it has something to offer then through persistence it will succeed.

Contrast that with Blairism. The Blairite way it to hold one’s beliefs cheaply – to ditch principle depending on the basis of what the most recent poll says. That may well be a shortcut to power but power without a real agenda is simply administration.

In that regard Labour should be bold and not afraid to lose support. It is better to have a coherent movement where voters know what you’re about than to have a generic umbrella party full of ambitious charlatans climbing the greasy pole. The test of whether it succeeds or not is really down to the ideas on sale. That is ultimately why Corbyn will fail.

Labour is supposed to be the party for the working class – but that is an increasingly nebulous term. It can apply to those on minimum wage with insecure jobs or it can apply to families with a mortgage and two cars. The latter being aspirational working class who have increasingly conservative views on taxation – and though largely socially liberal, not as permissive as the progressive left. The idea that the working class is a huddled mass of hapless serfs in need of rescue is an obsolete one. Labour continues to misdiagnose Britain.

Labour’s article of faith is that zero hours contracts should be abolished. While that may be noble in intent it’s not actually that big a problem and affects comparatively few people. Some even prefer the flexibility it offers. The insistence by Labour that Britain’s working class are necessarily poor and living in Dickensian poverty paints a picture that simply does not exist and is not recognised by ordinary voters. It cost Miliband the 2015 election. The patronising paternalism that comes with Labour’s anti-poverty crusade is also a big turn off.

And then we must look at Mr Corbyn’s bizarre fixation with nationalising the railways. Who owns the railways is neither here nor there. What people want is clean, affordable rail that turns up when it says it will. That’s all they care about. Presently it achieves none of these things.

But rail is beset by two problems. Overcrowding and price. Subsidise the fares and you create more overcrowding. Moreover, if you’re subsidising fares for London rail commuters then chances are that’s not a way to help poor people. You’re more likely subsidising middle class higher earners in London. It’s not a policy that speaks much to Labour heartlands like Sheffield where people take the bus to work – or walk.

What this tells us is that Corbyn has failed to understand Britain’s ills. Rail nationalisation is a solution in search of a problem. Britain needs bigger ideas than throwback socialist ones. The fact is we could spend a trillion on creating new rail infrastructure and not make any real impact on our capacity crunch. Rail is an expensive business. What we need is fresh thinking.

In Britain it’s not actually that difficult to find relatively good wages. The issue is how much of it we get to keep. After we’ve paid income tax and national insurance we’ve already taken a big hit in income. Add to that commuting costs and all the other costs associated with work and even a highly salaried job starts to feel like a mugs game. We need to rethink the very idea of work.

For starters, commuting is an absolutely absurd waste of time. We spend at least two hours in the day travelling – usually at the same time as everyone else – creating congestion along with all the health problems that go with it. Why? And if you’re not spending money on rail fares then it’s parking fees – often to do desk work we can just as easily do from home. This makes no sense. If we can get the workforce working from home then not only can we reduce spending on infrastructure we can end the spiral of wage inflation. This is where we can make tangible gains.

Instead of this, the Labour party under Blair introduced income support benefits and the minimum wage – but all of this is increasingly gobbled up by the cost of living – while at the same time adding to the overall tax burden or debt mountain. This is not sustainable – and the Tory national living wage is the same kind of thinking; inflationary measures which sound good but do nothing to increase our spending power or our ability to save.

What we need is radical ideas to bring down the cost of living and the cost of doing business. Nearly half the country can’t afford to save for a pension. We can live fairly comfortable lives on a day to day basis but it’s increasingly insecure with most of us being only two paycheques away from financial oblivion. The pound in our pockets is the key to electoral success – not who owns the railways.

In that, the government is going to have to do something about how much it takes from our wages. We have done a lot to take the low paid out of general taxation but you can’t have a dynamic economy unless people have money to spend, save and invest. But this is something that is alien to Corbyn. He thinks we are not taxed enough. It’s difficult to see how that message can connect with middle Britain. In that regard, Labour’s centrists have a point.

But then it’s Brexit that really tells us what’s going on. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. That in its own way is a judgement on London. There is a lack of trust that London will do right by them. The rest of England voted to leave – again in defiance of London.

Politically, economically, socially, London is increasingly divergent from the rest of the country. The political narratives are forged in London. Banking, media and government is all based there. It has spawned its own insular culture that lives in a parallel universe to the rest of us. The political debate in London is one alien to the one happening elsewhere. Policies imposed on the regions have little or no relevance to the distinct problems of the north of England. London has too much power.

While we have seen a largely platitudinal effort to devolve powers to the north the new authorities are again imposed by London and in all likelihood will take power away from councils. Labour should have opposed this, but to them it’s just another elected office to fill and Andy Burnham couldn’t wait to give it a bash. The inherent paternalism of Labour will ensure it is yet another rotten borough just like Birmingham.

We need an agenda to restructure power in Britain. One that gives the public direct control over taxation and spending so that they are in control. An agenda whereby people are trusted to manage their own affairs and give themselves a break when the politicians won’t.

We need a movement that seeks to take the power back to give to the people rather than to take it for themselves so that they can pull the levers of power. And that's not Corbyn. There is nothing at all radical about Corbyn’s Labour. They are the same old paternalists who think things would be better if only they were in charge. It never occurs to them that people are perfectly capable of finding their own way. They are every bit as establishment as Mrs Thatcher’s Tories.