Before 1979, British politics largely consisted of something called the ‘Keynesian consensus’. (I’m not sure if this term has been coined elsewhere, if not I’m happy to take full credit for it). This consensus posited that the key to economic growth and, to a lesser extent some semblance of equality, relied on socialist principles like nationalization, large public spending, and redistribution of wealth. Clement Atlee, the first post-Second World War Prime Minister and arguably the last Prime Minister to implement these kinds of reforms, nationalized public services and major industries and is credited with the creation of the highly-prized National Health Service, despite an enormous post-war deficit.
Putting aside Atlee’s troublesome and contemptible foreign policy, his ‘Keynesian consensus’ produced extended rights to sick leave, new pension schemes, legally required work breaks, solidified trade union rights, family allowances, holiday pay provisions, higher wages, and health and safety provisions, all of which caused a widespread and noticeable reduction in economic devastation and poverty. Successive Prime Ministers, both Labour and Conservative, would slowly chip away at these achievements with spending cuts and reduced worker rights until Margaret Thatcher smashed them with a sledgehammer with her highly dangerous privatization crusade in the 1980’s, which quickly restored the poverty and misery that Atlee spent ten years combating. Far from a necessary evil or last-ditch attempts to save the economy, these slashes to spending and privatization were for purely unfounded ideological reasons, borne from an unshakeable hostility to closing the rich-poor gap.
After Thatcher came Major, who carefully placed the ‘Keynesian consensus’ in a coffin, and then came Blair, who faithfully hammered the nails in the coffin on behalf of the other side of the political aisle. The results of mass poverty, stagnated wages, inefficient industries and the infestation of government corruption are the grandest achievements of the austerity narrative, the younger, evil twin of the ‘Keynesian consensus’ that remains a stalwart ideology of the Westminster elite to this very day.
Then along comes Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn, a pesky Atlee-socialist who hopes to undo at least some of the damage this festering ideology/myth has caused. This, apparently, makes him anything from a Venezuela-loving Marxist to a Hamas-loving Holocaust denier, but above all makes him unelectable. Since the rise of Thatcher, both sides of the political aisle take it for a holy truth that a party cannot form a government unless it accepts most or all of the conservative austerity narrative.
Thatcher’s win proves it, Blair’s win proves it, and Ed Miliband’s loss proves it, even though his campaign amounted to little more than pallid centrism. Corbyn’s polling numbers, which show him far ahead of rivals, must be little more than the exception to the rule and cannot possibly be indication of a growing unrest among the population with austerity. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote after they embraced austerity must be a mere anomaly too. Those same rivals, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, all accept the holy truth of the austerity narrative as a precondition for getting back into power, and coincidentally, they have not been subject to the same vile accusations Corbyn has, nor the same high polling numbers.
According to the acclaimed economist Paul Krugman:
“What’s been going on within the Labour Party reminds me of what went on in the United States within the Democratic Party during the Reagan administration and again for a while under President George W. Bush: Many leading Democrats fell into what Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo used to call the “cringe” – basically accepting the right’s worldview, but trying to win office by being a bit milder. There was a cartoon during the Reagan years that, as I remember it, showed Democrats laying out their platform: big military spending, tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor. ‘But how does that make you different from Republicans?’ the caption read. ‘Compassion – we care about the victims of our policies.'”
What Krugman has elicited is a frightening lack of any idealists in British politics. The standard-bearers of the main parties are those that think they can do a better job of whatever the other side is doing, not those who challenge the ideology and principles behind whatever the other side is doing. Before this year’s election, Miliband’s Work & Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves promised to be “even tougher” on benefit claimants than the Conservatives, while Miliband himself courted far-right voters with his “it’s not prejudiced to be worried about immigration” spiel. Neither of them bothered to challenge the underlying assumptions behind anti-welfare or anti-immigration sentiments; they felt their job was simply to quibble about the small print.
Therefore the history of socialism in Britain is just that: History. The wildly irrational and hostile reception to Corbyn’s thus far announced policies in the media and in his own party shows that he and his fellow socialists have an enormous mountain to climb if they are going to bring what Britain’s working class and poor so desperately need back from the annals of history.
The historical precedent for this hostility extends far too: Harold Wilson, one of the later Labour Prime Ministers who spent some effort undoing the work of Atlee, was the recipient of many shadowy right-wing plots aimed at overthrowing his rule in favour of a more moderate candidate; even MI5 briefly accusing him of being a KGB agent. Similarly, many high profile Blairites like Liz Kendall and austerity architect Peter Mandelson have attempted to sabotage the upcoming leadership election by having all the other candidates resign or vote for literally anybody other than Corbyn.
Highly undemocratic, contrary to the wishes of the voters, and in line with the wishes of media and corporate elites. Therefore, a priceless endorsement.