Skip to main content

British voters support every point on it, but the public square echoes with summary dismissal - The mystery of Jeremy Corbyn

Tabish Khair in The Hindu




How does one account for the fact that most U.K. voters support every point of the Labour manifesto, but the Tories, despite fumbles, are still leading in opinion polls by about 10 percentage points?

It is two weeks since the Labour manifesto was ‘leaked’. Immediately all the tabloids and most of the broadsheets went to town decrying the manifesto. It is the “second-longest suicide note in history”, they scoffed.

The hara-kiri reference was to the disastrous and divisive Labour manifesto of 1983, dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”. It is not an accurate reference. This 2017 manifesto is not protectionist like the 1983 one, and it promotes very restrained nationalisation. Moreover, the 1983 Labour manifesto was anti-Europe, anti-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), and uncompromisingly pacifist.


Not quite a ‘suicide note’


The 2017 manifesto is not anti-NATO; it even endorses NATO’s defence requirements. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has repeatedly explained that sometimes collective military interventions can be justified, though he has also criticised the hasty wars of recent years.

Similarly, his plan to nationalise the railway services is not necessarily an ‘old-fashioned leftist idea’. It is a bid to bring government-controlled railways back onto a level playing field, thus undercutting the monopolies of private companies and providing commuters with more options. Most voters support this, as they do his plans to abolish education fees, provide more and cheaper housing, and improve the National Health Service. And yet Corbyn is expected to lose — narrowly by some sympathisers, hugely by his opponents. Why is that so?

Some of it has to do with Corbyn. He comes across as a severely honest but uncharismatic leader from the past, someone who engages with ideas (whether you agree or disagree with them) and not sound bites. The media does not like such politicians, as we know in India too. They provide boring copy.

The problem facing Labour is that of credibility: voters agree with their manifesto, but they do not believe it can be implemented. This is especially true of the ‘middle’ voters, who usually sway elections: many of them feel that Mr. Corbyn is idealistically leftist.


Deviating from core principles

It has to be said in Mr. Corbyn’s defence that for decades Labour has been diluting its pro-worker platform and the Tories increasing or sustaining their free-market platform.
This has not been held against the Tories by many in the ‘middle’, while Labour, because of its compromises, has lost ground to the far right, even when it has won elections.

It is also a morbid world in which many ‘middle’ voters feel that something absolutely necessary for citizens cannot be done for fear of offending capital!
Surely, a nation is not a corporation or an individual, both of which can go bankrupt, and a politician’s first responsibility is to citizens?

In that sense, Mr. Corbyn’s manifesto is a gamble — to attract more ordinary voters back into the folds of Labour, on the assumption that concrete policies will count for more than xenophobic rhetoric for many of them.

But are the policies outlined by Mr. Corbyn ‘sustainable’? Many papers and all tabloids seem to claim that they are not.

One way to answer this is to look at the general outline of what Mr. Corbyn is promising: he is promising to “transform” the lives of ordinary Britons. This, in effect, was also what Donald Trump had promised the Americans, and both Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron had promised the French.

Interestingly, at least some of the tabloids that have dismissed Mr. Corbyn’s promise were far less critical of similar claims to shake the cart by Mr. Trump. As interestingly, Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron (at least until he got elected) and Ms. Le Pen, in very different ways, had offered less concrete policies to induce us to believe that they could make any significant dent in the status quo.

Mr. Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto has clearer ideas: a pledge not to increase middle class taxes but to tax the top 5% more heavily, action to shrink the growing wage gap between employees and top management, a better housing policy than the Tories, etc. Even his position on the European Union seems to be more concrete than Tory leader Theresa May’s vacuous statement, redolent of colonial hubris, that she will be a “bloody difficult woman” during Brexit negotiations!


The media’s role

It remains perfectly valid to ask whether these Labour measures are enough or fully ‘sustainable’, but that is not what is being done by much of the U.K. media. Instead, the very effort is being dismissed.

Is it the case that, being paid huge salaries by the neo-liberal dream, which is becoming a nightmare for many, British media leaders (who are not necessarily editors) do not wish to question its myths. Especially the cardinal myth that ‘national bankruptcy’ can be avoided only by passing on public debts to individuals, as private debts, while nationally subsidising banks and corporations.

Comments