My Union has written to me asking me to join the Labour party and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not sure that I will do that, because the Labour party is the only mainstream party for which I have never voted, and I would expect that Harman’s thought police will be actively rooting out new members with a questional political commitment (I’d definitely qualify!) – so why am I interested in who is going to become their leader? Well, in simple terms, Corbyn is someone who might tempt me to change that pattern of voting, and I’d like to explain why.
The first point is simply that Corbyn is so obviously not part of the metropolitan bubble, despite living in Islington. I am guessing that his views have hitherto placed him beyond the pale in terms of internal Labour party politics, and that this has enabled him to have a clearer perspective on the inwardness of the party elite. Whatever the reason, he comes across as authentic, consistent and principled, and that is immediately a huge plus, whatever the specific policy details.
Yet it is the policy details that attract me. I think that he will broaden out our political conversation in some very healthy ways. To begin with, it is very unclear that replacing a state monopoly with a private monopoly in various industries – rail, energy, post and so on – has actually benefited the country, as opposed to the financial industry. It is long past time that we assessed the lived experience of these private monopolies against the promises made, to see whether the politicians involved were wise and prudent or simply distracted by the prospect of generating a quick cash windfall for the Treasury. I also think that emphasising corporate tax avoidance and exploring ways to ensure that, for example, the profits made by the Daily Mail aren’t sent through Bermuda in order to avoid their legal obligations, is a necessary part of a healthy political conversation.
His key pitch, though, is about resisting political measures around austerity, and here I think he has a strong point both politically and morally. The sums involved in trimming back benefits, such as the child credit tax, are truly trivial when compared to either the overall government budget or the sums involved in supporting the financial industry with bail outs. For a society to try and save money by giving less to the weak and vulnerable, whilst turning a blind eye to the vast sums going to those who already have much – this says a very great deal about the sort of society that we are living in, and it doesn’t say anything good.
I believe that for a society to be considered civilised, there must be a certain standard of living below which nobody is allowed to fall. This is not a question of merit, or reward for hard work, or any other form of assessment or ‘means testing’. It is simply to ensure that nobody is thrown overboard as dead weight. This cannot be divorced from a Christian perspective of course – it is rooted in a theology of grace, that ‘all fall short of the glory of God’ and we are all the undeserving beneficiaries of a free hand out in spiritual terms.
Yet it can be defended in purely secular terms as well. To begin with, the notion that hard work is the principal determinant of financial success has been quite thoroughly deconstructed academically. The roles played by accidents of birth, networking, opportunity and simple luck are far larger. Put simply, hard work is not enough – and who is to say that those cleaning toilets work ‘less hard’ than those operating computers in the City? No, the idea that we might ever live in a pure meritocracy is simply a nonsense.
Secondly, the consequence of destroying demand at the lowest end of the income scale, which is what happens when the poor are made poorer, is that the total aggregate demand in an economy shrinks. The conspicous consumption of Louis Vuitton handbags and other luxury items by the super rich cannot compensate for the absence of consistent purchasing on necessities by the poor. To remove the poor from the economic cycle is to shrink the economic cycle itself, and then we are all diminished, both financially and spiritually.
It is because of this that I’m a supporter of a ‘basic income’, which to my mind is the simplest way to ensure that nobody is financially abandoned by the wider society. There are different ways to achieve that, and I’m not sure which method is best, but I believe that this is the sort of conversation that we need to have. The capitulation to the austerity narrative by the Labour party leadership, best exemplified by Harriet Harman’s decision to abstain on the recent package of welfare cuts passed by the government, shows that we need a very different opposition if we are to remain civilised.
I disagree with Corbyn on several things – the top rate of income tax is one of them, as I think it is self-defeating to increase it, it needs to be lowered significantly – but I really want him to lead the Labour party. To my mind the key political question is about how social inclusion is accomplished, not whether, and that leaves lots of room for political disagreements, not least between those who believe that such an aim can only be accomplished by an overmighty centralised state over against those who believe that it can be accomplished by small scale and local cooperative movements. Yet I would emphasise that this is the conversation that we must have. I think that if Corbyn were to be elected leader of the Labour party the quality of our political conversation would significantly improve, and we would all be better for it. So if you are eligible to vote – please vote for Mr Corbyn.