Left Keynesianism vs. Social Thatcherism

Jeremy Corbyn as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Shoreditch, May 2017.

Jeremy Corbyn as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Shoreditch, May 2017.

Jeremy Corbyn has played his cards well in challenging Theresa May to take part in the leaders’ debate. If May had accepted the challenge, the sheer dearth of political agility on display will put the incumbent at a huge disadvantage. Even Corbyn, the anti-charismatic politician, is faster on his feet. At last, the UK election looks interesting.

When the snap poll was called back in April, the consensus was that the leading issue was Brexit and nothing else would matter to ‘ordinary people’. Not only would this guarantee Theresa May a super-majority, it would doom the Labour left and force Jeremy Corbyn from the party leadership. All of this seems to have changed now.

Instead, the election has become a battle of values and ideas. Since Corbyn presented the Labour manifesto and presented his vision for a new foreign policy, the party has seen its poll rating climb to 38%. Meanwhile, May has struggled to maintain her lead in the polls. The Conservatives have had to pull a humiliating U-turn on the so-called ‘dementia tax’.

Although Corbyn is not a conventional politician, he has the upper-hand due to his authenticity. Even if you don’t agree with the man, it’s clear he believes in what he’s doing. At the same time, Corbyn appears enlivened on the campaign trail, whereas before he was bogged down in the task of trying to hold together the party. He seemed to disappear from public view for weeks.

The Labour campaign itself has had a streak of success with ‘common sense’ appeals. Corbyn has dropped the ‘edgier’ stuff – such as getting rid of the Queen and nuclear weapons – and emphasised social justice: an end to austerity, a higher minimum wage, greater investment and higher taxes on the rich.

It’s a left Keynesian package and it’s within the realm of the possible. Even if Corbyn doesn’t win, the debate will have been opened up for the left.

Amusingly, The New Statesman’s political editor George Eaton has only just noticed that Corbyn is not a Bolshevik with snow on his boots. He eagerly informed his readers that the Labour leader is just advocating a return to the post-war settlement. Of course, the real problem isn’t that Corbyn stands for mild reforms, it’s that he wants more in the end. That is why he is not seen as a “safe pair of hands” by the establishment.

Yet the campaign of slander has not been enough to suppress the Labour left. The party is a serious contender in the polls, partly down to Corbyn’s policy agenda but also due to May’s own failings. She is even less charismatic and effective than any of her critics had anticipated. The good news is really that the dynamics seem more volatile than ever.

It may even be that Brexit has liberated voters to consider other options. The prospects of things getting worse under the Conservatives and the seeming inevitability of May’s victory did not cow people into passive acceptance. Rather the feeling of inevitability has made people more open to the alternative. This could mean anything in the short-run, let alone the medium term.

Another hung parliament, the second in ten years, is now on the cards. Except this time it’s different. According to YouGov, the Conservative Party would be left with 16 seats short of an overall majority and, with few options for coalition partners, the UK may be left with a minority government. Even when John Major lost his majority and could fall back on Ulster Unionist support. Now even this isn’t guaranteed, May could be in trouble.

The Conservatives could lose up to 20 seats and Labour could gain 30. This outcome would make a mockery of the Tory attempt to get a super-majority. The YouGov analysis has the foreign exchange markets ‘worrying’. Sterling fell below $1.28 before regaining value, though it could easily fall further towards $1.20 should May fail to get the mandate she needs.

However, some analysts have thrown cold water on the YouGov study. Kathleen Brooks from City Index argues that the methodology of the poll is “untested” and leaves room for doubt. Brooks thinks it’s far more likely that May will increase her majority by a slim number of MPs. Though even this could hit the pound and leave May with a weaker hand than she already has.

There has been some nonsensical speculation about the character of so-called ‘Mayism’. As if the commentators bought the prime minister’s line that she has no ideology. Of course, ‘Mayism’ is defined by its self-declared absence. It’s non-ideological status is itself ideological. Brexit and a softcore nationalism are just an electoral strategy to redraw the political map and reconstitute the old Tory coalition of the 1980s.

So the idea that May is breaking with Thatcherism is unfounded. May has not questioned the basic framework of what she has inherited from Cameron. She has to try to soften the Conservative image on class issues; but she also has to raise the stakes on cultural and social policy. This is why May talks up getting more workers on corporate boards and, in the next breath, is talking about fox hunting and grammar schools.

May is different than Thatcher insofar as she claims to have no ideological centre. But this is her centre, of course. The Iron Lady was ideologically intense in a way that few conservative politicians have been in the past. Most conservatives are invested in instinct and non-reflection, so they disavow theory and ideology. This is where May is a garden-variety creature of the right.

May sees herself as a hard-nosed pragmatist in touch with the grubby reality of politics as trench warfare. She has an ideological agenda which takes Thatcherism as its starting point. In other ways, May is more like a Continental-style Christian Democrat in that she is not afraid of state power. Not least to maintain order, but also to intervene in the economy when necessary.

It opens up the rhetoric of the social market, the tease of greater equity within a market economy. It also means a greater propensity for authoritarian swings. The real purpose is to consolidate the status quo by alleviating the tensions of class society. Not that May can even deliver this modicum of social reform. Just like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, the real aim is perception management.

The trouble is it’s difficult to sell people the same rotten goods seven years after the initial con. If May can win this election, it will be more a testament to the stagnancy of the British political system than any popular will. If there is still a Tory left in Downing Street on June 9th, it will be because the ruling party lost less than its opponents and not because it really won anything.

Photograph courtesy of Matt Brown. Published under a Creative Commons license.