For those of us who have read our history books (or who are old enough to remember things the first time around), the spectacle of Jeremy Corbyn’s Trotskyist demagoguery at the Labour conference yesterday hovers somewhere between the terrifying and the absurd. But it’s all too easy to be sanguine and to dismiss Corbyn’s Labour as an anomalous throwback or fringe no-hopers – the Standing-at-the-Back-Dressed-S
Surely the public must have learnt its lesson by now that full-blooded socialism causes poverty, ruin and despair?
Voters must remember the misery of the three-day week, stagflation, 97% tax rates and the grinding inefficiency of nationalisation. And if they don’t, surely the warning signal of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuala, a modern failed state, shows what lies ahead if we embrace the Corbynite doctrine? And if that’s not enough, doesn’t Corbyn’s creepy obsession with Zionism and neurotic belief that the world is run by a conspiracy of Monopoly box businessmen smoking cigars with “dodgy donors” in “shady” clubs come across as, well, unhinged?
The Conservatives cannot be so confident. Corbyn’s positions on state ownership of utilities, higher taxation, large-scale spending increases and prices and wages set either by government or by trade unions are remarkably popular at the polls – 54% support the Shadow Chancellor’s plan to confiscate 10% of the equity in most British companies, while 74% support state control of rents, and 60% believe an increase in tax-and-spend to be a good idea. The policy wonks in the bars of Conservative conference inhabit an ivory tower of free market assumptions that the public doesn’t share.
Utterly divided by infighting and with its reputation for competence shattered, the Conservative Party must prepare its ideological war-game.With sky-high property prices, ten years of stagnant wages and successive – however necessary – welfare cuts since the 2008 crash, the case for private enterprise, low taxation and free markets has never been a harder sell. When Margaret Thatcher delivered the long overdue medicine of deregulation, privatization and fiscal restraint in the 1980s – unpopular though the effects of these were – the public knew the nation had little choice. Continuing to languish as before was not an option, and the nation knew something had to be done.
Fast forward to now and the majority of Labour members can’t remember a time before the so-called ‘neo-liberal’ consensus; to them Margaret Thatcher is a prehistoric figure, and many have no memory of Tony Blair. There is widespread cultural amnesia about the economic battles of recent history and what caused the Blair-Cameron consensus in the first place, and many millennials think Corbynism hasn’t been tried or is something genuinely new.
Cue alarm bells for the Tory conference. The Conservatives must ask themselves what they are actually selling to the voters. Statistics and graphs about the Laffer curve and tax receipts are unlikely to impress. The Tories need more.
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The Conservatives do have strategic options open to them, and must go to town on the opposition in the following key ways.
Proclaim the jobs miracle from the rooftops. Britain now has the lowest unemployment since 1975 and half as much as neighbouring countries, in spite of the financial crisis. While abolishing zero-hours contracts may harm jobs growth, it must be recognized that they’re hugely unpopular. Finding some solution to the job security problem, not fantastical statist programmes for compulsory worker ownership, must be the priority, and Labour’s anti-competitive (and job-killing) positions on labour rules must somehow be outflanked.
Combat the ideology of class war. Corbyn’s rhetoric has declared open season not only on the rich, but on the middle classes, too. Socialist moves towards wealth taxes may force even modest home-owners to re-mortgage or sell-up properties that represent their life’s work. The language of property rights and fairness must be invoked here.
“Labour will make you poorer” – this is a hard message to drive home because for many it’s counter-intuitive. But Britain is already as heavily taxed as a nation as it has been since the War. The richest contribute more proportionally in tax than ever, and fiscal drag is sucking more and more from the middle class. The Tories should announce a tax cut or freeze which Labour’s extravagant spending plans won’t allow them to match. Tory spin-doctors must do the maths on Labour’s manifesto and plaster social media with the annual financial hit most voters can expect.
Freedom of speech – this week Corbyn revealed his hand as an old-school Leftist authoritarian. He divided the press into the ‘good media’ (those who attack the Right) and ‘bad media’ (who tell ‘lies’ – that is, manifest truths – about the toxic attitudes in the Labour Party), arguing that freedom of the press has gone too far. The Tories must go further than exposing the anti-Semitism that plagues Labour and show the public that Corbyn will seek to use state power to silence his critics, too.
Patriotism – Corbyn’s foreign policy positions are deeply unpopular with middle England. His (justified) criticisms of the debacles in Iraq and Syria strike a chord with a war-weary public, but his openly declared refusal to countenance deploying the UK’s nuclear capability in any circumstance (something it’s irresponsible for any leader to admit, even if they believe it), his unrepentant support for IRA terrorists and desire to dismantle the Armed Forces are extreme, putting Britain’s security at risk.
Perhaps some liberal Tories may find it distasteful to indulge in patriotic rhetoric, but on this issue they’re out of step with their membership, their core voter base and – crucially – with working-class Labour voters in target seats. Far from an unethical foray into jingoism, the party must insist that the a conservative position on defence is both practical and right – with the Hamas-appeasing Corbyn as the target, the moral high ground is there for the taking.
Housing – offering vague economic competence and technocratic measures isn’t going to resonate with anyone. The Conservatives say they offer an ideal of meritocracy and individualism, but it can’t be realised when the primary aspiration of many – to own their own home – is denied even to achievers and strivers. Planning law is in dire need of reform – as is the absurd levy that is Stamp Duty – to inject liquidity into the housing market and allow the private sector to build. This is a time-bomb for the Tories which could cost them not only the next election but an entire generation of voters.
In the United States freedom, independence, prosperity, family, aspiration, self-reliance and enterprise are held up by conservatives as goods in their own right, and they don’t have to be explained in the language of marginal tax incentives and GDP. Politics is a game of both head and heart, and the Tories must find a way of tuning in to the British people’s basic, innate intuitions about what constitutes a good life – as well as their sense of pride. But with a conference sure to be dominated by Brexit, a bold alternative vision to Labour’s dark message seems unlikely to emerge.