Jeremy Corbyn made an extraordinary claim on the last day of the Labour party conference in Brighton.
Socialism, the Labour leader told Evan Davies on BBC’s Newsnight, “is actually very, very popular” in Britain.
Given that the great British public have recently returned a Conservative government to power, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a far-fetched statement to make.
But it turns out that Mr Corbyn is right: socialism IS viewed favourably by an astonishingly large proportion of British people.
Indeed, YouGov polling from 2014 (and there is no particular reason to think that views have dramatically changed in the past year) revealed that 39% of British people had a “positive” view of socialism, while roughly the same, 40%, had a “negative” view. Correspondingly, when asked if they had a positive or negative view of capitalism, 41% of Brits were positive while 35% were negative.
Of course, following the banking collapse and the never-ending series of scandals over bonuses, rip-off schemes and Libor rigging, it should not come as much of a shock that capitalism has lost some its populist sheen in recent years.
And it is no surprise that Labour supporters are far more likely to be keen on socialism, with the figure rising to 68% of Labour voters compared with just 15% of Tories, but over all four out of 10 adults in this country appear to think that socialism is largely a good thing.
This raises three questions: First, if the great British public claim to be so keen on socialism, why do they choose, again and again, to vote for political parties that don’t offer socialism and to reject en masse any party that moves further to the left?
Secondly, what do people actually mean by “socialism”. In America, the prospect of universal healthcare insurance was regarded by many Republicans as tantamount to revolutionary communism, while countries like Sweden and Norway operate a form of democratic socialism that many in Britain admire, but is this what those self-confessed fans of socialism really mean by the S-word?
And, thirdly, does a generally positive feeling about socialism translate into a desire to live under a socialist economic and social system? People may well think socialism is a nice IDEA, but that it isn’t necessarily an idea that would work best for them and their families in the real world right now.
The truth is that, while huge swathes of Britons might happily tell pollsters that they are broadly positive about the concept, socialism in practice is very different from socialism in theory – including when it is presented as an option on a pollster’s clipboard.
Socialism is not about sharing out the proceeds of wealth and ensuring that the poorest in a society are looked after. That is welfare capitalism, the system that operates in Britain today and in most of the successful countries in the western world.
While there is, admittedly, strong support among the British public for “socialist” policies like renationalising the railways and utilities, as well as raising the top rate of tax to 60 pence in the £1, at 58% and 52% respectively, there is also plenty of support for distinctly un-socialist policies, such as stopping all welfare benefits for people who refuse employment offers, at 66%, while 50% back an end to all foreign aid. The British people seem, as they often do, to want to have it both ways.
Many Britons, of course, might like the idea of socialism as a desirable way to run the world but not think it works very well in practice. But even that would be misguided.
Socialism is not the benign force that so many people seem to think it is. Socialism is what happened across the Soviet Union, in Maoist China, in Tito’s Yugoslavia, in Albania, Cambodia, Mongolia, and it is still in existence right now in modern day China, Cuba, Lao, Vietnam and in North Korea.
It is about the state enforcing the removal of wealth and property from individuals and taking away the freedom for people to do what they choose – to buy and sell what they want at a price they want and live the way they want. Are the British people really ready to sign up to that – and the economic, social and personal misery that will, and always does, inevitably follow?
A mere glance down that list of former or current self-declared socialist states tells us everything we need to know. With only one notable exception, they are all economic basket cases, with widespread poverty and a notable lack of personal liberty. And the exception only serves to prove the rule, since China has only begun thriving since its totalitarian regime embraced the evil forces of capitalism as the only means to generate wealth.
It would surely be very strange if, when faced with a genuine choice, so many people living in a free and democratic capitalist state like Britain would choose, of their own volition, to give away that liberty to live as they want, be paid whatever they can earn and to buy whatever they want (within reason). It’s certainly never happened anywhere else before without the help of guns and tanks.
Jeremy Corbyn may well be right that socialism is “very, very popular” in Britain.
But the results of every general election of the past few decades suggests that the popularity of the socialist ideal does not necessarily translate into votes for parties that want to put socialism into practice. Mr Corbyn, take note.