Corbyn’s knows that he cannot win an election under the current neoliberal paradigm. By changing the subject, Corbyn is attacking a 30-year-old consensus with socialist views that are popular with the general public. Corbyn’s win in 2022 could come more easily than we think.
Jeremy Corbyn delivered his best conference speech yet, where he called for ’21st-century socialism’. By that, he means nationalisation of the railways and main utilities, the introduction of rent-control, increasing taxes on those with the highest income, the creation of a National Education Service, scrapping tuition fees, and many other goodies. This speech is a direct challenge to the past 30 years of politico-economic thinking: it would undo Thatcher’s legacy. He wants to ‘replace the failed dogmas of neoliberalism’. The editors of the Guardian called it his best speech yet. They are right. Corbyn has shown himself to be a political genius.
Smashing the Pundits’ Overton Window
The key part of his speech was this:
Conference, it is often said that elections can only be won from the centre ground. And in a way that’s not wrong – so long as it’s clear that the political centre of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is. It shifts as people’s expectations and experiences change and political space is opened up. Today’s centre ground is certainly not where it was twenty or thirty years ago.
Corbyn is completely right. The real centre ground of the country is not anywhere near the pundits think it is. For the past 20 or so years pundits have all shared the following views: (i) social liberalism is good, the debate is on the pace at which it happens, (ii) high level of immigration is good, the debate is on tinkering with how high a figure we can take it right now, (iii) the only possible economic system is a free market with targeted government intervention, a generous welfare state, and governments should strive to balance budgets. This was the Overton Window.
Within that framework, elections were conducted as follows. Parties would have broadly similar policies on issues (i) and (ii), so the battle would mostly be fought on issue (iii). However, because there was so little disagreement to be had on issue (iii) – if you don’t believe me compare the 2015 Conservative and Labour manifestos – the question was largely one of competence. Who do you trust the most to manage the country’s finances? And on that question, the Conservatives have a natural advantage. They are, after all, the natural party of government. And when Labour did win, as in 1997, it was by persuading voters that they would be just as competent as the Tories.
When Corbyn became leader we were still operating within a narrow Overton Window. If not even Ed Miliband could pass the competency test against the Tories then there was no way that Corbyn could. Labour was dead unless it changed leaders, the pundits said.
Could Corbyn succeed by instead challenging that narrow Overton Window? The issue is that when it gets challenged the pundit class issues an anathema against the challenger. Just ask Tim Farron, Nigel Farage, and indeed Jeremy Corbyn himself.
The voters are socially conservative, anti-immigration, socialists
But this is where Corbyn’s stroke of genius comes in. He realised that this narrow Overton Window is not at all representative of public opinion, on all three of those issues. On social issues, notwithstanding the criticism that Tim Farron and Jacob Rees-Mogg got from the pundit class, people are far more conservative than most realise. More people want to bring back the death penalty than not, almost half believe that life begins at conception and that abortions should not be funded on the NHS. On immigration, it is not just Brexit that they want but also a ban on Muslim immigration. Trump’s policies are soft compared to what the British people want. And on the economy, they favour nationalisation of public utilities, an increase in the minimum wage, rent-control, and a ban on zero-hour contracts. They also have a more favourable opinion of socialism than capitalism.
There are three electoral strategies open to Labour: (i) the Democratic Party way, (ii) the New Labour way, (iii) the Bernie Sanders way. The first amounts to what the Democrats did in 2016, put the focus on social progressivism and pro-immigration policies. We saw how well that ended for them. On both of those issues, the British public is quite right- wing. Corbyn cannot win using these. Moreover, this would split his vote and result in the loss of traditional Labour Northern areas. The second strategy would be to work within the current paradigm and try to convince voters that Labour is more competent at managing a neoliberal economy. With Corbyn, that is impossible. This then leaves us with the final strategy. This consists in smashing up the paradigm when it comes to the economy and making that the key issue. That is the strategy Corbyn is going for. The only people upset at such a move in Labour would the Blairites but any influence they had has gone since the 2017 general election.
How can the Conservatives Respond?
As analysts on both the left and the right have pointed out, the swing voters are the socially conservative, anti-immigration provincial middle class and skilled working class (the C1 and C2s). They are also very sympathetic to socialism. This message of Corbyn will appeal to them. Will he win them over? This depends on what the Conservatives do. There are three strategies open to the Conservative party: (i) Modern, (ii) Red, (iii) Traditional. The Modern way is what David Cameron did. Economically neo-liberal, socially progressive, lax on law and order (anyone remember ‘hug a hoodie’?), and fairly centrist on immigration. This would be an assured defeat. Those swing voters would have no reason to vote Conservative. The second strategy is what Theresa May attempted to do in the 2017 general election. Socially liberal, right wing but not too right wing on immigration, and economically moving to the left. This would have greater chances of success than the previous strategy but is not creating a sufficient pull for those swing voters. The final strategy would be to be right wing in all areas. This would combine free-market economics (including, if needed, welfare cuts – these are actually popular with the swing voters), with other right-wing policies on social, law and order, and immigration issues. In such a case the swing voters would feel a pull from the right on those issues and from the left on the economy. Who they go for ultimately would depend on what the more salient issue is.
This is where Corbyn’s timing is genius. Currently, Brexit and immigration are the dominant issues. But by the time Britain has left the European Union, they will probably no longer be. In addition, by changing the conversation away from Brexit, Labour can keep its coalition of voters intact and avoid any divisions. Furthermore, a lot of Corbyn’s economic policies might not be possible whilst Britain is in. Corbyn is not actually hoping for a general election now. Instead, he wants one in 2022, once Britain is out. He is laying the groundwork now. With this speech, Corbyn has come close to sealing a victory in 2022.
Rajiv Shah is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Cambridge. Read Rajiv’s last article here.