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Conservative failures open door to return of socialism

Conservative failures open door to return of socialism
October 09
14:57 2017

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?

The euphoria of British Labour, facilitated by Conservative Party traumas, has been on display. A slicker Corbyn told a rousing party conference his agenda is that of a “modern progressive socialist party that has rediscovered its roots and its purpose”.

The politics of the left has been in turmoil in the Anglosphere. Virtually all parties have moved to more radical positions tempered by different degrees of pragmatism: the ALP is among the most pragmatic and British Labour the most extreme.

Mocking the May government, Corbyn says Labour is now “winning the arguments” about a new direction for Britain with its agenda of expanded public services, higher taxes on the rich and corporates, renationalisation of railways, energy companies and water, rejection of welfare cuts, abolition of tuition fees and a transformation of power in British society away from elites and back to the people, reminiscent of Donald Trump on the hustings.

The Economist magazine says “the unthinkable image of a left-wing firebrand in 10 Downing Street is increasingly plausible”. It reports the bookies have Corbyn favourite to be the next prime minister, probably an exaggerated call. Incredibly, The Economist even offers a semi-apologia for Labour, saying there is a “good Corbyn” as well as a “bad Corbyn”. Yet it concludes with harsh realism that PM Corbyn would do “serious and lasting harm” to Britain.

The cultural phenomenon in the Anglosphere is the resurrection of socialist ideas seeded by the decade-old global financial crisis and the monumental ineptitude of ruling elites, unmatched since the 1930s. Corbyn says the centre ground of politics is not “where it was 20 or 30 years ago” and that “a new consensus is emerging from the great economic crash and the years of austerity”.

He says the conservative mantra of deregulate, privatise, cut taxes for the rich, austerity and restrictions on the public sector is unpopular and consigned to the dustbin of history. Have no doubt, Corbyn’s propaganda is powerful. Yet the real story is how conservative failure has given a bankrupt agenda new life — an insight into the deeper cultural crisis of the Anglosphere, where the Enlightenment legacy seems finished.

In a recent interview with Unherd.com, commentator, academic and historian Niall Ferguson warns Britain and the US are making a major historical blunder by misinterpreting the current age and the causes of their economic malaise originating in the GFC. Ferguson repudiates the entrenched dogma that the problem is a crisis of capitalism; he says it comes instead from bad public policy and government failures.

Ferguson warns of the consequences arising from a false diagnosis seen in Britain, above all, in the rise of Corbyn and in the US in the rise of Bernie Sanders with similar views.

“The real worry is not that capitalism is in crisis,” Ferguson says. “It’s not. The real worry is that socialism is making a comeback, and that’s different. The reason it’s concerning is we thought we had killed it off about 1989 but as I discover every day students have no memory of that great battle in the 1980s that led to the defeat of the communist states and socialism as an ideology.

“They (students) are ready to lap it up as though the 1980s never happened. If I were living in Britain now I would be worried, above all, by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader from being a kind of lunatic fringe Militant Tendency element.”

Ferguson calls Corbyn an “unreconstructed leftist who I think is tempting younger voters with implausible promises along the lines of jam today, jam tomorrow and regulate anything you don’t like”.

He says the lesson from history is that “the more you attempt to pursue socialist policies in pursuit of egalitarian outcomes the worse it goes for the economy and potentially for political freedom”. Yet this is the direction being taken by the left.

The British Labour Party has marched far down this road, intoxicated by legions of activists. The related fear is that the Democratic Party in the US might follow. The data shows this is a generational event. The proposition yet to be tested is obvious: is Australia any different?

Ferguson says “we’ve seen this movie before” — witness Britain in the 70s with high taxes, strong government intervention and powerful trade unions. He says the issue is whether there is a reversion to the failed policies of mid-20th-century socialism. Will the Anglosphere decide to forget its history?

Ferguson highlights that Trump, not Sanders, became US President. This was not a vote against capitalism — given Trump is a capitalist. It was, rather, a vote saying globalisation had “overshot” and gone too far. Trump was a critic of globalisation: of free trade, open immigration, outsourcing US jobs.

The US public wanted globalisation “dialled back” in its economic benefit, not the demise of capitalism or any lurch to socialism. This was completely understandable. Addressing the malaise facing the US and British economies, Ferguson says the “central problem” has been “bad government policy”, citing the West’s fiscal crisis, the decline in educational standards and problems in health systems.

The data shows the problems in the US public school system are “shocking” and the main problem is not funding but teacher unions. The left’s agenda of huge increases in social spending is unlikely to deliver better services.

For Ferguson, this evidence is clear: he predicts that if robust policy reforms are instituted by governments, the upshot will be productivity gains and stronger economic growth. What is overdue is “taking a long, hard look” at fundamental state policy failures. Good luck with that.

In her blunder-ridden speech to the Conservative Party conference this week, May tried to rally a dispirited party, aware of the great ideological war now at hand. She said she aspired “to root out injustice and to give everyone in this country a voice”, and then, aiming at Corbyn, declared her mission was to win the battle of ideas “in a new generation all over again”.

“Free and open markets” she said, had raised living standards for everybody, had entrenched freedoms and had been central to Britain’s role “as a force for good in the world”.

“So don’t try and tell me that free markets are no longer fit for purpose, that somehow they’re holding people back,” May said. “The free market and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities and the rule of law that lie at its heart remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created. So let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might.”

After her disastrous effort at the Conservative conference, May’s leadership hangs by a thread. The issues are: when will she be replaced, and by whom? The crisis of the Conservatives suggests they are ill-equipped for any battle of ideas. This gifts Corbyn an immense opportunity, yet it is also possible Labour has reached its zenith and that British common sense will deny him the PM’s office, given the next election is a long way off.

May’s speech revealed the huge problems the Conservatives face in the coming battle of ideas.

As part of her defensive tactics, May pledges more funds to education, a better health system, urgent action to confront housing affordability (the average British home cost is eight times average earnings), price caps on energy bills and intervention to limit student debt.

But Corbyn merely says if these interventions are essential, then let Labour do the job properly.

He mocks May by demanding she “go the whole hog, end austerity, abolish tuition fees, scrap the public sector pay cap”.

He says the Tories won’t change. They stand for “rampant inequality, the hollowing out of our public services, disdain for the powerless”.

The language is reminiscent of Bill Shorten in our 2016 campaign. Corbyn says British Labour has become the “political mainstream” and that its once denounced manifesto is now “popular”. The harsh truth, however, is that Corbyn’s history suggests that he stands to the left of even the formal manifesto.

Given the length of time Corbyn has espoused disreputable ­positions, there is no certainty he will be tempered by electoral pragmatism. Corbyn has long been sceptical about NATO and Britain’s membership; he attributes much of the Islamist terrorist problem to the foreign policy of successive British governments; he is a sceptic about globalisation; and as a fan of the former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, he refused to condemn his hero even when the economy collapsed and there was warfare in the streets.

The Economist suggests ­Corbyn “would instinctively line up against America in a geopolitical emergency and he would see a financial crisis as Act One in the collapse of capitalism”.

Yet sections of the Australian left take him seriously.

Corbyn says his aim in Britain is not just redistribution but a transformation in the system and ­nature of power in British society. Nationalisation of utilities and an expanded public sector are the heart of this construct.

His slogan is that “socialism for the 21st century” is “for the many not the few”.

British conservatives have made two shocking mistakes this year. 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.

May’s central dilemma is an insight into the problems faced by most Anglosphere incumbents: Malcolm Turnbull is a relevant example. The public is hostile to the status quo: weak growth, poor wages, high energy prices, inept government service delivery and failing schools.

Because of chronic failures of public policy, May must also present as an agent of change. She must defend the kingdom against the socialists while seeking to re-position the kingdom with new policies. In May’s case, this is a task beyond her. It is the exact challenge facing Turnbull.

The arrogance of both sides is astounding. The Conservatives have simply assumed for too long the mad and radical ideas involved in the return to socialism make their oppositions unelectable. The British left, on the other hand, is infatuated with the quasi-revolutionary belief the status quo is indefensible and that they represent, as they always have, the “right side of history”.

The Corbynites have made a mistake Shorten would never entertain: the delusion of the revolutionary mindset. It is likely to be their downfall.

Yet there is one message the ALP is probably ­absorbing, that British Labour may be more defined as the party of youth than the party of the working class.

If true, it is an unprecedented event with both pluses and negatives. It injects Labour with great energy, another aspect of the Sanders phenomenon in the US. British party activists carry a sometimes embarrassed Corbyn as their hero, a process likely to be as fickle as it is fashionable.

There is nothing inevitable about the victory of the more radical left. May won the 2017 poll against Corbyn. New Zealand PM Bill English far outpolled Labour in the recent election and should — we cannot be certain — form a new government. Trump, not Sanders, became US President. Turnbull, not Shorten, won the 2016 election in Australia.

In each case, the opponents on the left, representing various degrees of radicalism, were defeated. Yet their momentum was unmistakable. The issues for the future are how strong this tide runs and whether the optimal strategy for the radicals lies in pragmatic adaptation or tougher quasi-socialism.

Invoking a mood of ideological anger, May denounced Corbyn as a politician who wants to pile taxes on business when business investment is essential; borrow hundreds of billions of pounds to nationalise industry; strip Britain of its nuclear deterrent; and play with progressive culture’s descent into anti-Semitism and intolerant hatreds.

Such rhetoric was once a winning position. But it will no longer suffice. The vault of conservative scare campaigns — justified or not — is increasingly ineffective. Young people are unconcerned and unpersuaded.

They live in the present, not the politics of the past.

Meanwhile, the dilemma for conservative incumbents arises in their repeated failures to manage the economy and spread the benefits, the traditional hallmark of conservative success.

They live in the extended shadow of the GFC, the growth showdown of the past decade, the excesses of the rich 1 per cent and their own inability to devise policies to revive their economies.

It is tempting to think much of the current battle of ideas is fraudulent. This is not like the 20th century, when socialists and communists offered an alternative model to democratic capitalism and a number of nations originating with the Soviet Union embraced this alternative.

On display today is something very different: the failure of conservative management, the ­romantic and self-interested impulse of radical politics unable to reinvent itself and the delusions of large sections of Western populations, angry, frustrated, looking for a better way and susceptible to the greatest hoax of the previous century.

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