Ideology or Popularity: How Will Britain Vote?

Photograph Source: It’s No Game – CC BY 2.0

It’s not news that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a popular figure.

It’s also not news that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are hugely popular with the British public.

Why should the first of these appear to matter more than the second?

The answer, of course lies in something that we’ve known for a long time. The British press cater to elites. In fairness this is just how the press works. As Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman point out in their classic Manufacturing Consent, Western media function on the basis of a propaganda model. Media companies make money through advertising, which makes more money by catering to wealthy audiences. The result of this is a huge bias in favor of elite opinion. Since Thatcher effectively won the argument against anything that might actually be accountable to the people rather than to the pounds sterling, this logic dominates not just private media, but public media and even other institutions like universities and political parties. That extends to the Labour party, or at least it’s Blairite wing.

Which is precisely why the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is so interesting. And so dangerous, at least to some people.

The anti-Corbyn tactics are telling. They indicate a kind of desperation. Unlike the Blairite wing of the party, Corbyn’s Labour is proposing measures that would push back on the kind of predatory global capitalism that has been on the rise. Among them are slowing and reversing the privatisation of the NHS, scrapping user fees for education, and funding a Green New Deal to live up to Britain’s climate change commitments.

In a democracy, these proposals would be the subject of debate. To the extent that the Conservative party represents any ideology it is still Thatcherite neoliberalism, and so the counter arguments would be fairly clear – privatization is good because free markets are good; governments, like families, need to cut budgets so they don’t spend more than they earn; and trade liberalization makes the world go round. As economists like Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge have pointed out, these arguments have never been true. The only way countries develop, is by violating the rules of neoliberal capitalism. And after the worldwide collapse of global capitalism in 2008, followed by a decade of punishing the victims of predatory capitalism for the failures of capitalism, the vague references to Adam Smith ring hollow.

So the Tories are in the uncomfortable position of having to defend unpopular policies based on transparent falsehoods. What’s their answer to this problem? Somewhat surprisingly, their answer appears to be “socialism lite”. Their manifesto boasts of delivering 50,000 more nurses for the NHS, a claim they immediately walked back when it turned out that 19,000 of those nurses are already in the NHS. A couple of weeks after the election was announced, Boris Johnson scrapped plans to decrease corporate taxes, a measure which he then tried to link to increased spending on public services. Apart from their demand that the disastrous Brexit referendum of 2016 must be implemented no matter the cost (and despite that fact that no one knew what they were voting for), there’s not much to separate the logic underlying the Tory proposals from that of their Labour rivals.

Politically speaking, one would have to conclude that the Conservative party has lost the ideological argument. No one, including their own ministers, is defending its legacy. So why does it still seem likely to win this week’s election?

The secret to the Tories’ possible success seems to be to focus less on the issues, and not at all on their own leader (who can’t be bothered to turn up for an interview or a debate). Instead, they are focusing on Labour’s unpopular leader. And the odd thing is that it seems to be working.

The muckraking includes calling Corbyn an anti-semite, but it doesn’t stop there. (Somehow the fact that Boris Johnson has a habit of making racist comments is irrelevant; Labour is an anti-racist party and therefore must be held to a higher standard.) A new book by Tom Bower paints a portrait of a power hungry anti-semite who regularly hangs out with Muslim extremists. Anyone with an ounce of sense will struggle to find the Labour leader in this description; for his part Bower had the sense not to source his allegations so there’s no way to check up on which of these might be true and which are blatant fabrications. For anyone interested, Peter Osborn has a thorough debunking.

The advantage of mudslinging is that it sometimes sticks. Many British voters can’t say exactly why they don’t like Corbyn, but they know that they don’t like him. Even if these allegations were defendable, Corbyn’s Labour party has effectively won the debate on austerity. Both parties are promising to protect the NHS from privatization, but only one party is actually selling NHS data to private companies like Amazon. That should matter a lot more than whether or not the British public would like to go on holiday with Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the outcome, this is one of the most fascinating elections on record. Arguments for the status quo – that the rich should see the biggest gains when capitalism works and the poor should pay when it doesn’t – aren’t working. Demonization of one’s opponents has always been a part of electoral politics, but in this election that’s pretty much the only tactic in play, at least for the Tories. Their victory would be a huge triumph of the British propaganda system. It would also be a huge failure for democracy.

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