What are we to make of a political class that proclaims its ethical commitments but that cannot bring itself to endorse the only concrete actions that would honour them?
This general election is unique in ways that transcend Brexit. Over the decades that I have been observing British politics, never before have I witnessed a consensus so widespread and powerful regarding the country’s urgent needs and priorities. And never before has the Labour Party presented a manifesto, buttressed by the leadership’s will to implement it, that promises real change in accordance with that consensus. And yet, despite this rare alignment, never before have the influencers that speak on behalf of Britain’s educated middle classes turned so viciously against a Labour Party that has done so much to address their own agenda.
Britain’s educated middle classes have, indeed, reached an impressive consensus. They worry about the climate emergency and accept the need for the state to act decisively in a world whose sustainability is jeopardised by Trump-like politicians and corporate-driven inertia. They concede that inequality has become obscene and is now hollowing out the social contract on which civilisation depends. They accept that the City of London remains a clear and present danger to the real economy, draining resources and perpetuating instability. They acknowledge that austerity is nothing more than a self-defeating fiscal policy masking a toxic class-war against the weaker citizens. They disdain Boris Johnson’s playful treatment of the facts and run scared of what a Tory Brexit will mean for their children’s access to European institutions, for the NHS, and for the UK’s capacity to resist the suffocating embrace of Trump’s US.
Meanwhile, the Labour manifesto will be remembered, irrespective of the electoral outcome, as a most worthy blueprint for tackling these concerns. From an economic perspective, it is a measured, bold, well-targeted and moderate financial response to the UK’s urgent needs and abundant capacities. For instance, the plan to establish a National Investment Bank, which can soak up excess liquidity from the financial system and create sustainable growth and high-quality, green jobs. Or the idea of ending the private oligopoly over broadband and transforming it into a public good that boosts the productivity of hitherto deprived citizens and small businesses. Or the proposal to finance the investment drive by asking those who benefited inordinately for decades to contribute more tax, effectively the social contract insurance premium they have been skimping on for so long.
From a social perspective, the Labour manifesto directly addresses that which the chattering classes have long demanded: providing better social care and more council houses, ending the heavy burden of debt for young people who dare enter university, and abolishing the zero-hour contracts that are a source of guilt even for the affluent.
From an environmental perspective, Labour’s manifesto includes the greenest, most radical plan offered by a major party anywhere in the world. Besides setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions, it provides a means of financing the new institutions necessary for the green transition.
And then there is Brexit. What has been the chief demand of England’s political centre in recent years? To rule out a hard Brexit and to hold a second referendum that features Remain as an option. Once Johnson turned hard Brexit into an imminent reality – one still looming after the end of the mooted transition in December 2020 – Jeremy Corbyn did as he promised. He began campaigning for a second referendum that offers the good people of the UK two non-lethal options: a soft Brexit (with the UK remaining in the customs union and, mostly, the single market) or full EU membership.
And there’s the rub. While Labour’s manifesto is uniquely tailored to the concerns of Britain’s so-called middle ground, never before has that territory been more hostile to Labour. This is a phenomenon that will be remembered in decades to come as the great 2019 British paradox. Unpacking it holds the key to grasping Britain’s current predicament.
If you ask the commentariat for an explanation of this paradox, you will get an earful of chatter about Corbyn’s Marxism, alleged anti-Europeanism and lack of character. However, the truth is simpler and uglier than any of this. From day one, after he won Labour’s leadership in 2015, the game was afoot. Soon after Corbyn became leader, I warned that a huge campaign of character assassination was inevitable. It was not difficult to see it coming.
Social democratic parties, like Labour, were tolerated to the extent that they tinkered around the edges of a socio-economic order. But after the financial crash of 2008, Corbyn emerged and turned Labour into a threat to the privileged classes. While the liberal bourgeoisie are happy to romanticise the plight of the poor, and disparage social injustice, they are keener to write off as passé, or even dangerous, any sensible programme for ending inequality at an industrial scale.
In so doing, they erode liberalism’s claim, on which effective governance depends, to represent all citizens, as opposed to merely a few. But such is life in the conflicting mindset of a ruling class that has lost the capacity to reproduce sustainably its own regime.
What are we to make of a political class that proclaims its ethical commitments but that cannot bring itself to endorse the only concrete actions that would honour them? As John von Neumann, the great mathematician turned Cold War warrior, once said of J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, “some people profess the guilt to claim credit for the sin”. It is the duty of progressives uninterested in the reproduction of the current reality to give Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party the electoral victory it richly deserves.
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