There is a joke about the three intellectuals who fled Russia for the West during the outbreak of the revolution – Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a great writer. The second - an outstanding philosopher. Rand was neither.
Like a libertarian publicist, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, seems to fall between the two stools. He doesn’t have that ‘what matters is what works’ attitude that Tony Blair, the left’s moderates icon, espoused. Neither is he a great technocrat. Yet at the same time, Corbyn also lacks intellectual honesty that Tony Benn and Michael Foot had. Whatever they flaws were, they stuck to what they believed in the face of conspicuous electoral hurdles.
Rather, Corbyn is a populist who favours obfuscation over facing up to hard choices. Sure, Labour might have done well at the last election; or, at any rate, it hadn’t flopped as badly as most predicted. Yet this hardly alters the fact of Labour’s stance on every crucial political subject being about as clear as mud.
Take Brexit. At first, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell pledged it was essential that Britain severs its ties with the single market. It didn’t take long, however, for Starmer the party’s Brexit spokesman, urging the party to hold its horses on the issue. While leaving the single market would perhaps be the right thing to do in principle, he declared, one must leave the option on the table for a while. And as if that was not vague enough, Shami Chakrabarti, shadow attorney-general, conceded that Labour may after all be willing to stick to the principle of a free movement to gain greater access to the EEA. Straight talking, honest politics.
The Tories are being eviscerated for their lack of clarity on Brexit. However, no minister has as of yet publicly repudiated any of the key principles Theresa May, the Prime Minister, divulged in her Lancaster House speech. It is therefore incredible that Labour still chooses to have their cake and eat it a year since the June referendum. Doesn’t it reek of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line that the liberal left admonished with a derisive clamour?
The topic of EU negotiations is by no means an isolated case. The left’s economic thinking is a snake oil. At first glance, splurging additional £48 bln on state spending, as outlined in the Labour election manifesto, may seem like a game changer. A closer look at the programme doesn’t leave much to be hopeful about. While conveniently underestimating the benefits of his proposals, Corbyn willfully exaggerates their costs.
Let’s start with the left’s pledge of scrapping the tuition fees. What will come of it? Not much, in a word. At least when it comes to helping the poor. According to the most analyses, those benefitting most from it will actually be people on higher incomes. “Those who go on to earn the most would benefit the most from this policy, as they are the ones most likely to have repaid their loans in full under the old system”, argues Jack Britton from the Institute for Fiscal studies.
Contrary to what Corbyn asserted, the percentage of poor pupils taking a university degree isn’t declining. It is, in fact, on the rise. As The Times’ Danny Finkelstein points out, 9.6 per cent of those from disadvantaged backgrounds went to university in 2009-10; in 2015-16 the figure was 11.3 per cent.
Second most expensive item on the manifesto list, a vow to provide a free childcare for everyone, will also benefit the middle class more than other groups. The poor are already covered by provisions in this sphere subject to means-test.
It’s not like the welfare buffer for the middle-class will come cheaply either. Labour’s tax bombshell is mainly aimed at the richest, meaning those who have the greatest ability to dodge from it. In addition, the party didn’t even bother to spell out how it would fund the plans for nationalisation of key industries, including the rail and energy firms. The price that poor will pay for Corbyn’s dreams may do so in different form - additional taxes, inflation or fiscal squeeze following a period of deficit spending. But pay they will.
Another big challenge concerns terrorism. After a string of terror attacks, the saliency of domestic security is on the rise. Here Corbyn’s duplicity is staggering even by the standards of politics - the trade where unalloyed sincerity is hard to come across.
During his years of backbench obscurity, Corbyn had shared platform with IRA and Hamas and advocated for the army cuts. His main acolyte, John McDonnell, was caught publicly endorsing violence to pursue political ends. More recently, Labour’s leader made it his mission to oppose anti-terrorist measures, not least the government Prevent programme. Yet Corbyn is now parading as Dirty Harry, a veritable obstacle on the Tories’ path of cutting police forces to the bone.
In fact, the Conservatives have increased Britain’s ability to prevent and stop terror. As Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, pointed out, the UK’s annual counter-terrorism policing budget rose from £594 mln in 2015–16 to £670 mln in 2016–17. Meanwhile, the intelligence agencies will have received 1,900 additional staff by 2021.
Consequently, Labour’s stance on the three most pertinent topics on British agenda is not as much about constructive ambiguity as it is about opportunistic duplicity.
And while the American left is throwing a kitchen sink at finding a concrete evidence of Donald Trump’s collusion with Moscow, it doesn’t take an investigative genius that Labour’s leader financial dealings with Iran. Corbyn is also the only senior Western politicians who enjoyed an explicit praise from a Russian official.
Trump’s ascendancy in the US had liberal media crying wolf. The magnate’s lies, they lamented, had become a white noise in which a more portentous signal is lost. But if Trump was treated as a tragedy waiting to materalise, Corbyn’s phenomenon has been treated as a farce. Should he get into the office – a possibility that is no longer implausible – there won’t be much to laugh about.