A moment of regret and clarity

I used to post long articles on British politics on this blog. I haven’t in awhile, and a lot of inner rage has built up in the meantime. So even though I’ll try to be as concise as possible, I have an awful lot to say. 

Prior to the UK General Election this year, after much deliberation, I gave Labour my endorsement. You can read it here http://hanrott.com/blog/the-uk-general-election-a-brief-but-definitive-guide/. But in short, I thought Labour had ran the best campaign, and had a sufficiently radical platform to address a deeply divided and troubled country.

Although the endorsement was for Labour nationally, the post was aimed at Exeter University students in particular- who constitute a large portion of my Facebook friends; I also shared the endorsement on Facebook. Here in Exeter, we have a moderate, pro-EU MP, who has been willing to take a principled stand against the leadership on various issues. So I was pleased that the endorsement was generally well received by my friends, and therefore happy when our MP won his seat with over 62% of the vote.

In the endorsement I made clear my reservations about Labour. I have never believed increasing taxes and government spending will solve the UK’s fundamental economic weaknesses, particularly in a country which already has a relatively large state. I have always had reservations about Corbyn’s viscerally anti-Western foreign policy views, as well as his unwillingness to criticise left wing authoritarian governments in places like Cuba and Venezuela. But I put those reservations aside because I believed the alternative was worse. I strongly believed the Conservative Party would win a landslide victory, and then use its dominance to leave as many of the EU’s institutions as possible, reduce the number of refugees and foreign students allowed in the country, oversee real-terms cuts to science and environmental protections, and suck up to a highly unsavoury Trump administration. Theresa May seemed to regard political opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic, rather than a beneficial and necessary part of democracy. She was backed by the hard-right tabloids, who viewed Remainers and liberals as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘saboteurs.’ The Conservative Party increasingly resembled UKIP in its xenophobia and intolerance of dissent. Voting Labour seemed like the only realistic alternative.

However, although I don’t regret voting for my local Labour MP, I must admit that I regret giving the national Labour Party my backing. Since their surprisingly strong showing at the election, Labour has become dominated by Corbyn and his allies. Labour MPs who were sceptical of either Corbyn’s policies, judgement or electability have been sidelined. Despite having just lost an election (albeit narrowly), the party is in a jubilant mood, with few bothering to ask why they lost. The lack of self-criticism is not only foolish in terms of future electability, it is arrogant. Corbyn and John McDonnell act as if the British people are behind them, ignoring the fact that the Conservatives won a plurality of votes in spite of an appalling campaign. The fallacious concept of a unified ‘will of the people’ is the received wisdom amongst the hard-Brexit supporting Conservatives, but has recently become an accepted dogma amongst Labour as well. Labour politicians attack May for having lost a mandate she sought, yet they too, lack a mandate.

Another mistake Labour have made in the election’s aftermath, is assuming that because their support is disproportionately young, their chances of success will be higher in the future. In reality, there’s absolutely no guarantee of this. In the Sixties, the social liberalism of the youth made many political commentators conclude that conservatives would struggle to be elected going forward. But by the Eighties, the generation that had supported the social liberation of the Sixities, then supported the conservatism of Thatcher and Reagan, largely due to a frustration with militant unions and a fear of Communism. Similarly, Democrats in America wrongly believed Clinton would win based on her support amongst the young, as did Remainers in the UK’s EU membership referendum. The fact is, Labour cannot depend on the support of the young alone, particularly as our population ages. As a young person myself, I find it extremely presumptuous when Labour members claim to speak on behalf of my generation.

In terms of policy, there is a lot to be concerned about Labour’s platform. The party hasn’t established a clear position on Brexit, with shadow ministers contradicting each other every week. On the one hand, pro-EU MPs like Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw claim Labour will seek to stay in the Single Market permanently. Since the vast majority of Labour MPs voted Remain, it’s hard to see the party choosing to leave the Single Market, which is why I thought it was safe to vote Labour as a Remainer. But Corbyn has implied the party will advocate leaving the Single Market on the basis that Single Market rules prevent a truly socialist Britain from being established. This is either false or frightening, depending on which form of socialism Corbyn wishes to pursue. If he believe Britain should be a comprehensive social democracy like the Netherlands or Sweden, then there’s nothing about the Single Market that prevents it. Many EU countries have nationalised transport and utilities, publicly funded healthcare, state-owned industries and the world’s best welfare systems. Leaving the Single Market would damage the economy by making it less attractive for EU businesses to invest in Britain, thereby depriving the welfare state of the funds it needs. However, if Corbyn wants to make Britain an altogether more radical socialist country like Cuba or China, then the prospect of leaving the Single Market becomes a nightmare scenario. Without its constraints, Corbyn could seize private assets without compensation, establish state monopolies in any industry he wishes, and restrain EU immigration on the basis that it undermines British labour- something he has alluded to.

Labour then claimed it could fund a substantial expansion of government entirely by raising taxes on the top 5% of the population. This always seemed unlikely, yet the part has yet to apologise for its mistake. The truth was that the party proposed taking advantage of low interest rates to dramatically increase borrowing, in order to fund nationalisations and infrastructure investments. To an extent, this makes sense, particularly as many of these investments may pay for themselves in the long term. But it cannot be assumed that every instance of government borrowing and investment will pay for itself. The obvious example is HS2, a high speed rail line which is enormously costly, yet hasn’t attracted any private sector investment due to a low rate of return. In any case, Labour failed to explain why a higher deficit was desirable considering that Britain’s deficit is already high by OECD standards. As for taxes, countries which have a government of the size Labour was proposing have much higher taxes on the poor and middle class, not just the rich. Denmark and Sweden have higher sales taxes and alcohol taxes. The Netherlands has higher income taxes. France has considerably higher payroll taxes, as does Germany in the form of compulsory social insurance schemes.

In my endorsement, I said that Britain should vote for radical change, as if radical change was inherently good. I then said that Britain should give Corbyn’s unadulterated form of socialism a try, simply because the Conservatives had failed to provide a compelling alternative. I must now admit that I said those things out of fear and desperation. I was never fully on board with Labour’s policies, and I am certainly not now. Corbyn’s anti-Western outlook and soft Euroscepticism leave much to be desired. But I was petrified of an increasingly authoritarian Conservative Party winning a landslide majority, so I did everything in my power to prevent that. In the future, it’s highly unlikely I’ll give Labour as a whole my backing, even if many of its MPs are fantastic.

In my next post I’ll address the Liberal Democrats- why I didn’t support them, and what I think of them now.