Prompted by Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the recent UK election, Paul Kelly fears socialism’s comeback. Rather, might it not be the Labour leader stands for something, however flawed, while Theresa May, like another alleged conservative leader much closer to home, represents nothing at all?
In his Weekend Australian column, Paul Kelly starts as follows:
Within the Anglosphere, the ideological lines are being drawn sharply and Britain leads the way. Speeches from Tory leader Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have raised the existential question: Are we returning to socialism?
He quotes The Economist as saying, “the unthinkable image of a left-wing firebrand in 10 Downing Street is increasingly plausible”, and he reports the bookies have Corbyn favourite to be the next prime minister — probably an exaggerated call, as Kelly cautiously notes.
The aftermath of the British election is perceived by Kelly as marking a seismic shift to the Left. Jeremy Corbyn, dismissed before the election campaign as an anachronistic irrelevance, now appears to hold the political and ideological high ground. Paul Kelly quotes Niall Ferguson’s concern that socialism is making a comeback, particularly among the young in educational institutions. This longer term trend in a supposedly educated section of the younger generation reflects both a disturbing ignorance of recent contemporary history and another marker in the long march through the institutions by Cultural Marxism.
However, it is hard to see the outcome of the British election as somehow a mass conversion of the British electorate. Paul Kelly is pessimistic about the possibility of reform from a conservative limited government perspective. But there are risks in over-reliance on extrapolation from particular events. After all, just a few weeks before the election, Theresa May’s conservatives were riding high in the opinion polls and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was a busted flush. There is no evidence that the opinion surveys before the election campaign were wrong, nor that the students, attracted to socialism, had any impact on the election outcome, and no evidence that socialism made a sudden quantum advance during the short weeks of the campaign.
Indirectly, Paul Kelly points to Theresa May’s central problem: as the supposed official champion of free markets and limited government, she does a terrible job. After the usual bromides about the values of the freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities and the rule of law, her practical policy prescriptions are a defensive shift to the left. So she pledges more funds to education, a better health system, urgent action to confront housing affordability, price caps on energy bills and intervention to limit student debt. Corbyn responds with brutal logic that if these interventions are essential, then let Labour do the job properly. As quoted by Kelly, Corbyn mocks May by demanding she “go the whole hog, end austerity, abolish tuition fees, scrap the public sector pay gap”. Kelly does not follow through with any suggestion that May’s shift to the Left may be part of her problem.
Kelly is suggesting, however indirectly, that Corbyn may seem disreputable in his policy positions but nonetheless is becoming mainstream. He argues that British conservatives have made two shocking mistakes:
First, they overestimated public abhorrence towards a radical left agenda, along with their own ability to demonise Corbyn. Second, their astonishing and accumulated ineptitude – as shown in politics, policy and business – has created the serious option of the most decisive leftward shift for more than half a century. The dominant story of the times is conservative failure.
Theresa May’s denunciation of Corbyn as a dangerous leftist is “increasingly ineffective. Young people are unconcerned and unpersuaded. They live in the present, not the politics of the past”. One might ask what these “young people” were thinking a few months before the general election, when the Conservatives were riding high in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. If we accept that these “young people” are attracted to a revived socialism, we should assume that they were already unquestioning supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and played no role in that dramatic swing to Labour. We are left with the prosaic answer. The dramatic loss of support for the conservatives during the campaign was caused by a considerable number of voters who both supported Brexit and hitherto had indicated support for the Conservative Party, deciding to support the Labour Party.
Over the longer term, politics is a contest of ideas, but Kelly seems to be reducing politics to an abstract intellectual contest. Dramatic swings in campaigns can hardly be explained by a kind of intellectual reductionism. If Kelly is to be believed, Theresa May lost support because she lost the battle of ideas in a remarkably short time, rather than because she ran a lousy campaign. No, I believe that she lost support because she failed to sustain a clear and simple narrative and failed the test of authenticity. By contrast Jeremy Corbyn may be a little mad and his stated ideas off the charts, but he is perceived as genuine, and that is what counts. Is this also an opening for genuine conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg? In The Spectator of July 15, 2017, James Delingpole wrote:
‘We need to talk about why the internet is falling in love with Jacob Rees-Mogg, because it’s not OK,’ warns a recent post on the Corbynista website The Canary. Its anxiety is not misplaced. Polite, eloquent, witty, well-informed, coherent, principled — Jacob Rees-Mogg is the antithesis of almost every-thing the Labour Party stands for under its current populist leadership. And far from putting off voters, it seems to be a winning formula. Even sections of the elusive and generally very left-wing youth vote appear to be warming to the idea that our next prime minister shouldn’t be (alleged) man-of-the-people Corbyn but yet another plummy, Old Etonian millionaire…
This ought to make no sense at all. If there’s one lesson the Conservative Party’s strategists have learned from Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the polls — at the time of writing he has an eight-point lead — it’s that Britain has had enough of conservatism. Actually, the word they use is ‘austerity’ but it amounts to the same thing. So widespread is the panic in the party that even its more fiscally responsible luminaries are coming round to the idea that, from university tuition to the NHS, the only way to beat Corbyn is to talk and spend like socialists.
Jacob Rees-Mogg scorns any notion of intellectual abdication to the Left. And yet in front of audiences which one would normally expect to be left wing, he is a star.
The lessons for Australia are obvious. Voters are searching for authenticity. Expect outsiders such Cory Bernardi to move even more firmly into the spotlight as months go by.