Shortly before she triggered the June 8 British election, Prime Minister Theresa May in her sternest schoolmistress manner, which is very stern indeed, scolded the opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, that the nation was not, as he had the gall to accuse, experiencing unnecessary and unfair austerity under her heartless Conservative government. She said instead she liked to call the tough times that the average earner citizen was forced to undergo as “living within our means.”
Theresa May’s modest appraisal requires some translation, which a 90 per cent proTory British press won’t hurry to provide. Across the seas in the USA too in Atlantic Magazine, David Frum, a former George W. Bush speech-writer, asks in theatrical exasperation if “political normality will return” at last to the UK after Corbyn and his dangerous policy pretentions presumably are tossed overboard. What exactly are these utterly nutty notions that the UK and US media, coincidentally owned and controlled by the very rich, ceaselessly tell citizens who aren’t born rich that they should fear?
Corbyn’s election manifesto promises free university tuition, free primary school meals, more and more affordable housing, pension protection, re-nationalizing the hated price-gouging railway system, protecting the National Health Service from stealth privatization, and paying for it all by reversing some of the tax cuts that the upper strata reveled in ever since Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s. Raising the corporate income tax from 19 per cent to 26 per cent, as Corbyn proposes, would bring it to the average rate among rich countries and would still be well short of the ta- rate during Britain’s best growth years, which were in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet in the eyes of the media raising taxes on the wealthy is by definition a daft thing to do.
The super rich are doing great but today nearly a third of the British population subsist at or below minimum living standards. Half the children in poverty reside in families where parents actually work full time but still can’t meet the insane rising rental and housing costs and also come up with little extras like paying utility bills or eating regularly. So Corbyn’s policies are mortifyingly popular, but fortunately for establishment elites the hysterical derision they heaped upon the Labour leader, plus the malicious mischief of Tony Blair holdovers inside Labour, exerts an undeniable dispiriting influence on the electorate. How can you separate the popularity of Corbyn’s policies from Corbyn himself? Isn’t it crazy to try? Yet no one would waste vast amounts of money denigrating Corbyn if it did not get some results.
British elites haven’t faced a genuine challenge to their plush position in decades and are determined to control the way Corbyn is perceived. So Theresa May, far more out of fear than contempt, declines to debate Corbyn publicly, where he could demolish her during an uncensored broadcast. The BBC, by the way, routinely issued nightly TV clips edited to portray May as besting Corbyn in Parliament but never showing Corbyn’s ripostes. To do so would spoil the smothering anti-Corbyn narrative.
Campaign rhetoric is conveniently slippery. The word ‘reform’ is a favorite Tory smokescreen because it has been refashioned to mean change of any kind, no matter how harmful to the common welfare. All reforms are good reforms because reform is supposedly an improvement even if reform means cutting taxes on wealth, shutting public services, boosting prices, curbing civil liberties, dismantling public watchdogs over financial houses and corporations, tamping down wages, and deregulating health, safety and environmental measures.
The post-Brexit world under the Tories’ vaunted “stable and steady management” augurs an endless squeeze on living standards via inflation, wage stagnation, and cuts in welfare. The media is squealing indignantly about Corbyn “dragging us back to the 1970s” but the British should be so lucky. For all the industrial strife and oil price hikes at the period the Brits enjoyed far higher and usually full employment, rising living standards for all not just a few, free education through university, and average wage earners could afford to live in almost any neighbourhood. We know not only because we checked the record but because we were there at the time.
You don’t need a PhD to figure out the motives at play. Conservative parties exist to fill the pockets of wealthy supporters and would be remiss for not trying. The easiest route to do so these days is to convert state programmes into private ones from which their cronies then make enormous taxpayer-supported profits. The Labour Party under Blair and Brown foolishly went along with this scheme in their so-called Private Finance Initiatives for which hapless taxpayers are saddled with huge obligations. Anyone puzzled by Trump or May or any other conservative leader can predict their economic policies by keying in on that single purpose and you won’t often go wrong.
Theresa May loftily portrays the 2008 crash as a result of state overspending rather than as a catastrophe engineered by her party’s cherished donors. Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders and unlike Macron in France, offers a social democratic alternative.
The Tories now lead by double digits with several weeks to go but the lead has been closing. If Corbyn gets inside single digits by election day everything could go up for grabs with the prospect of a ‘progressive alliance’ made up of Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the lamentable Liberal Democrats. The Scottish nationalists may not even need apply. The stakes are high because we are living not within our means but within their means, the means of a global investor class that has accumulated more assets than they know what to do with but intend to enlarge no matter what. How long can it go on?
The writers are well-known commentators and authors of No Clean Hands and Parables of Permanent War together, and of many more books individually.