Labour can’t do right for doing wrong but there are interesting implications for #GE2017

Do you ever get a sense that some people just don’t like you? No, of course not you specifically. Everybody likes you. More a sense that there are people (not you, obviously) that some people just don’t like. You know, those people who regardless of what they actually say, it is always deemed the wrong thing. Happens to me a lot. Apparently it happens to the current Labour Party leadership too.

For example, when Jeremy Corbyn said he didn’t consider himself especially wealthy, nor did  he believe himself to be part of ‘the elite’, The Independent scowled as follows:

Jeremy Corbyn has said he does not think he is wealthy, despite his £137,000 salary.

How out of touch! Champagne Socialist!

So, imagine their surprise when John McDonnell yesterday discussed the point at which we might consider people rich. The Guardian report:

In an interview on the Today programme (from 1:15:30) on BBC Radio 4, McDonnell set out his vision of a “fair taxation system”. He said Labour would be “looking to the corporations and to the rich to pay their share”.

When pressed to define who the rich are, McDonnell put a figure on it: “We believe … the rich will be above £70,000 to £80,000 a year and that’s roughly defined as what people feel is an earning whereby people feel they can pay more.”

The Independent – the same paper that determined Jeremy Corbyn was totally out of touch for claiming not to be wealthy – railed against McDonnell thus:

Labour could hit “rich” people paid more than £70,000 with higher taxes to raise money for cash-strapped public services.

Note the scare quotes intended to imply those earning nearly three times the national average could not possibly be considered rich.

It is entirely unclear where The Independent believe the boundary lies? If £70,000 to £80,000 is not wealthy, but Corbyn’s £137,000 certainly is, do they set the boundary of rich/poor at £100,000 to £120,000? If so, why does one have to earn five times the national average before they can properly be considered rich? Could it possibly be the case that they, frankly, don’t care where the boundary lies and see this as a stick with which to beat the Labour Party? If so, it would be helpful for them to determine precisely at what point they perceive richness begins.

Emily Thornberry has offered an even more nuanced answer today. As reported in The Guardian, the shadow foreign secretary upheld McDonnell’s £70,000 to £80,000 guideline but noted that some families in this bracket may not necessarily feel rich due to cost of living disparities across the country. She said ‘I think there are many people on £70,000 who may well feel that their circumstances are such that they are not rich’. Thus it may be said that those earning £70,000 to £80,000 are indeed rich but their circumstances (such as, let’s say, living in central London) may mean they do not have vast sums of disposable income leftover giving them a sense of richness.

The ontological reality of richness, however, cannot be denied with reference to the subjective feeling of richness. Those with little disposable income leftover from £70,000 to £80,000 because of central London living are, nonetheless, making the choice to live and remain in central London when those earning considerably less have no such option. Richness is principally determined by income and asset, not merely how one feels having chosen to live in a large house, in an expensive area with various expensive, yet unnecessary, top end direct debits and the like. Lack of disposable income after such expenditures does nothing to change the fact that many on significantly smaller incomes cannot afford to live in the same area, with the nice schools and ameneities nor can they find the money to pay for many of the outgoings those living on £70,000 to £80,000 deem “necessities” that subsequently limit their disposable income.

It is quite clear the media are looking for sticks with which to beat the Labour leadership. When they claim they are not wealthy, they are derided as out of touch. When they claim £70,000 to £80,000 is rich, they are condemned as not recognising the harsh realities faced by those earning that and above. What is interesting is that such tactics may inadvertently benefit the party in the run-up to the General Election.

Many are writing Labour off entirely. Based on one lost by-election and a few council results (ignoring one successful by-election being fought particularly hard by UKIP), this is scant evidence for the utter implosion of the party. Ah, but look at the polls, I hear you cry. Certainly they don’t look great. But let’s not forget the utter failure of polling across the last two elections, during the Brexit referendum and in the recent American presidential elections. Polls are not always right and are sometimes woefully wrong. Lately, they have been less than accurate and the evidence is that much of Labour’s support is holding. The Manchester Gorton by-election would have been particularly instructive given that Manchester was, outside of London, one of few English places in favour of Remain in the EU referendum and yet which has been staunchly Labour for decades. A Labour return would put paid to the theory that Labour’s vote has entirely dissolved, especially as a result of its equivocal position on Brexit. Alas, Gorton cannot help our predictions now but, I strongly suspect, Labour can expect a fair majority in that seat.

As I noted here, recent election and referendum results have only one thing in common. Contrary to the self-soothing mantra of many centrist liberals, it is not a wave of right-wing populism sweeping across the world. Whilst the presidency of Donald Trump in America and the electoral success of Marine Le Pen in France can be consider as such, the double leadership win of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership campaign, the rise of Podemos in Spain and the re-emergence of left-wing Socialist candidates in France all suggest the left is doing alright too. Groups like the Five-Star Movement (M5S) in Italy are hard to place on the left-right paradigm and, despite claims to the contrary, Brexit was not driven exclusively by right-wing populism as evidenced by every major party having a ‘for Britain’ or ‘for Brexit’ group. The common strand is not right-wing populism, it is anti-establishment aggressive non-centrism. They are neither exclusively right or left wing, it is a clear desire to move away from bland centrist politics.

Corbyn, for all his presentational and leadership faults, appears to have picked up on this theme. He is running his campaign very much on an anti-establishment ticket. Notice, for example, the line given during the recent taxable rich discussion (quoting Emily Thornberry):

“Many people feel that the elite has not been taken on. People who don’t think the rules apply to them. People who feel they can keep their wealth offshore and avoid paying taxes.

“There has begun to be a view around that ordinary people are the only ones who should be paying taxes and it’s about time that stopped. It’s been glacial and we can see there are people who take the mickey, and it’s not fair.”

Notice also Jeremy Corbyn’s latest public pronouncements:

“Much of the media and establishment are saying this election is a foregone conclusion”…

“They think there are rules in politics, which if you don’t follow by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win.

“They say I don’t play by the rules – their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game. They’re quite right I don’t. And a Labour government elected on 8 June won’t play by their rules.”

Doesn’t that sound like something straight out of the Donald Trump electoral play-book? The politics might be completely different, but the message is basically the same. You can vote for the establishment or you can move away from more of the same.

It bears saying there is great anti-establishment feeling out there. It doesn’t take much to see that the media have, for some time, been out to get Corbyn specifically. It is probably worth noting what happened the last time the media and mainstream politicians together joined forces to tell the British public how to vote. It might also be worth considering how accurate polls have been recently.

I’m not saying all of this means we’ll be looking at a Corbyn premiership. I’m just saying the currently predicted wipeout for Labour isn’t necessarily the foregone conclusion being presented. If nothing else, it strikes me that this sort of media attack will do more to play into the Corbyn narrative, and is more likely to bring support, than it will to damage him. Nobody likes being told what to do and most don’t like thinly veiled attacks on people regardless of what they actually say. For all his leadership faults, and whatever you may think of him, Corbyn’s anti-establishment narrative is quite canny. It speaks to a real feeling across the country and, on the evidence, he can make a good case that he truly isn’t part of the elite – politicians and papers clearly hate him. Given popular public perceptions of the veracity and moral uprightness of the average Fleet Street hack and similar views on politicians at large, coordinated attacks on Corbyn may inversely be read by the public as something of a positive in his favour.