“The dividing lines in this election could not be clearer from the outset … it is the establishment versus the people and it is our historic duty to make sure that the people prevail,” said Jeremy Corbyn in his first speech in the election campaign.
This isn’t just an election slogan or even a party slogan. It is a fairly concise summary of the political Left’s self-image. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell echoed the sentiment last year, when a group of Labour MPs initiated a vote of no confidence in the party leader: “This coup isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn…This is about you…This is the one per cent telling the 99 per cent to ‘get back in your place’.”
In the left-wing view of the world, humanity consists of two distinct species, namely The People and The Elites. The People are noble and pure; The Elites are greedy and morally corrupt. But The Elites are also devious manipulators – which is why they have ended up with all the wealth and all the power. This is the root cause of our social and economic problems.
The solution? Easy: Kick out The Elites, and put The People in charge. Unfortunately, The People also tend to be politically inarticulate, so they need a skilled interpreter. And that is the Left.
But how far does this People-vs-Elites template actually get us? Let’s try to apply it to some recent, divisive issues in British politics.
Let’s start with the never-ending saga about the third runway at Heathrow, which flared up again last autumn. Is airport expansion good for The People? Or is that a project of The Elites?
Why, that’s obvious, some would argue. Airport expansion would make air travel cheaper and more convenient. It would also create new jobs at and around the airport, as well as additional tax revenue. That’s good for the Average Joe.
No, it would be awful, the other side counters. Not only would it increase aircraft noise, it would also fuel “binge-flying” and the associated “booze tourism”, which is vulgar, and should be discouraged.
More recently, the UK branch of Black Lives Matter protested against airport expansion, arguing that it is a race issue as well. Black people are over-represented in inner cities, and therefore disproportionately affected by air traffic, which means that airport expansion is racist.
Confusing, isn’t it?
Well, what about last year’s tube and rail strikes, then. Were they a good thing?
Of course, some would say. They strengthen the bargaining power of transport workers’ unions, which makes it more likely that these workers will get the pay rises, improved working conditions and job security they so richly deserve.
Nonsense, others say. Due to union privileges, these sectors are already overmanned, and the staff overpaid (relative to what they could earn in comparable industries). Quite apart from the short-term disruption, if the unions get their way, fares will have to rise, resulting in a zero-sum redistribution from commuters to transport workers.
On the one hand, train and tube drivers are clearly of The People, and strikes, in the Left’s view of the world, are progressive and good. Yet somehow, it is hard to think of those who are in the top quintile of the earnings distribution, with generous perks and high levels of job security, as being exploited.
Which brings us to the junior doctors’ strike. This was, according to the placards “everyone’s fight”. It was about saving the NHS from cuts and privatisation, which, surely, must make it the epitome of a People’s Strike.
Except, even in the Guardian, at least one writer did not buy that message: “Let’s call a spade a spade. This is a workplace dispute about terms and conditions, not a campaign to save the NHS.” It is almost as if doctors, despite being part of the sainted NHS, are capable of self-interest, and as if their cause was not a cause for The People.
These are national issues. On a more local level, let’s talk about planning disputes. Flick through the pages of any regional newspaper and you’ll inevitably come across one. They are usually presented as a struggle between a greedy developer, who wants to concrete over our precious countryside for a profit, and a conservationist group that valiantly defends the local community against them. Surely, this has to be a clear-cut case of a People-vs-Elites issue? True People Power, straight from the grassroots, against a rapacious corporation?
Except, chances are that in the next edition of the same paper, you will come across an article about the woeful housing shortage in the community, and about how key service workers and young people can no longer afford to live there. Cynics would suggest that there might be a little bit of a connection between anti-development protests and housing shortages. They might even point out that those “community-spirited” anti-housing protesters are already well-housed, and that by fighting off new housing, they are also protecting their own property wealth.
Are they The People? Sure. But confusingly, The People are also the ones who are being priced out.
And then there’s the issue of benefit sanctions, which, according to the Left, are a mean-spirited attack on the most vulnerable in society. And yet, it is often people on low incomes who hold the most punitive views on welfare. That was the theme of one of my favourite Guardian articles ever, which had “cognitive dissonance” written all over it.
Finally, let’s have a look at the most divisive issue of our times: Brexit. The pro-Remain sections of the Left have convinced themselves of the “displaced anger” hypothesis. Leave voters, they argue, were angry and frustrated, but failed to understand the true cause of their anger and frustration: capitalism. So they lashed out against the wrong target. What seemed like a vote against the EU was really a badly articulated vote against capitalism.
But plenty of Brexiteers also framed it as a People-vs-Elites issue of sorts, except that in their version, The Elites are a cultural elite rather than an economic one. And there is good evidence that the EU referendum was much more about cultural values than economics.
The People-vs-Elites narrative is essential to the romantic radicalism, fuelled by righteous rage, which drives the Corbynistas. But it does a very poor job of explaining contemporary political and economic divisions. Trying to make sense of today’s politics armed only with such a binary template would be like trying to find your way around modern London using a map of Roman Londinium. It’s no wonder Labour looks so lost.
The Corbynistas haven’t got the right answers for today’s problems because they are wrong about how the world works. The People, in the sense of a group with homogenous and easily identifiable economic interests, doesn’t really exist. It’s more complicated than that. Our economic interests tend to pivot around our personal circumstances, our cultural values and our individual preferences, rather than our social class or income bracket. And even though most of us would notionally be of the People, we don’t actually have that much in common.
As a result, any attempt to increase the scope of government – which is what Corbynism, like any form of socialism, is all about – would increase the potential for social conflict. Collective decision-making requires agreement, hence expanding the sphere of collective decision-making would increase the need for agreement.
Given that we don’t think and act as one, a socialist economy would be a recipe for discord and resentment. A free-market economy, in contrast, allows people to play to their individual strengths. It minimises social conflict, by minimising the need for agreement.
Such a pragmatic approach is, admittedly, far less romantic than the Corbynista strategy; it will never inspire as much enthusiasm as the just struggle for The People. But it has the upside of being far less likely to end in disappointment.