Is there nothing Jeremy Corbyn can’t screw up? This week his advisers whispered to the press that their leader was about to do a Donald, be more populist, try to connect with the man and woman in the street who might think of him as a bit stiff and aloof and stuck in the Seventies. And how does he kick off this project? By slagging off footballers, the most idolised sportspeople in Britain, cheered by vast swathes of the very people Labour no longer reaches but wishes it could. The money paid to footballers is ‘grotesque’, said Corbyn today, in his best irate vicar voice. Cue media coverage of Corbyn’s moaning mug next to Wayne Rooney (£250k a week, loved by millions). What next in Corbyn’s populist makeover? A call to wind down Coronation St? Close pubs on Sundays? A Twitterspat with Ant and Dec or Sheridan Smith or some other national treasure?
Corbyn seems to have confused being popular in leafy Labourite bits of London with being popular. But in the nation at large, among those who go to games every Saturday or drink up the daily sports pages, there’s no bristling anger with football pay. Sure, footie fans are peeved at ticket prices and irritated they can’t buy a kit for their kids for less than £25. But if they blame that on anyone, it’s the TV deal-makers or club owners. Alarm at footballers’ pay is a peculiarly middle-class thing, agitating the minds of those who can’t believe a bloke from an estate who can barely string a sentence together should earn millions a year for ‘kicking a pig’s bladder around a field’ and yet who will fawn like crazy over filthy-rich Meryl Streep’s utterances about Trump. She’s sophisticated, though, so it’s okay for her to be rolling in it.
Labour leftists have never understood this basic fact: ordinary people don’t hate rich people. In fact they admire many of them. They don’t wince when they see a footballer and his WAG posing by the pool in Hello! — they think, ‘That looks like a nice life. Good on them.’ Corbyn bemoaned footballers’ pay as part of his proposal to enact a law preventing people from earning above a certain amount of money. Yes, a maximum wage. ‘I would like there to be some kind of high earnings cap,’ he said. It’s the worst idea a British political leader has had in years, and it reveals pretty much everything that is wrong with the left today.
First there’s the sheer authoritarianism of it. It will never come to pass, of course, because Corbyn’s footballer-bashing and bodged populism and general inability to connect with anyone outside of Momentum and the left Twittersphere means Labour won’t be darkening the door of Downing St for yonks. But that Corbyn is even flirting with the notion of putting a legal lid on what people can earn is pretty extraordinary. It would basically be a stricture against getting rich, a restriction on ambition, a state-enforced standard of living: you could be comfortable and middle-class, but not loaded. There’s a stinging moralism, too. Labourites complain about those on the right who look down on the ‘undeserving poor’, but what we have here is not all that different: a sneering at the undeserving rich, a prissy concern with the bank balances and lifestyles of those who’ve made a bomb.
It would also be fantastically discouraging, even debilitating, of risk-taking and entrepreneurship. I’m as fond as the next man of the idea of public spirit, but let’s be real: not everyone does stuff for the common good; or rather they don’t only do things for the common good. Businesspeople, inventors, technology whizzes, even medical experimenters — they’re often keen to help other people and also to help themselves; to get their idea out there and to get rich. Right now there’s a brainy teen with a brilliant idea for an app who’s simultaneously thinking, ‘People will love this app and it will make me insanely rich’. And then Corbyn whispers in his ear: ‘You can only earn a certain amount, young man, for your own good.’ It’s more than a buzz-kill — it’s a potential progress-kill.
But beyond the mind-blowing miserabilism of effectively banning richness, there is also what this idea reveals about the radical left today — its stunning lack of ambition, its dearth of economic vision. The left’s obsession with tax and high pay, its myopic insistence that everyone stump up to the government and its sniffiness with the habits of the well-off, speaks to a view of society’s wealth as fundamentally fixed, as if there’s only so much pie to go around and so we must slice and serve it more fairly. There’s no sense that there might be major economic growth, more wealth creation, a push to make everyone richer rather than the rich poorer: all key dreams of the left in the past. That’s where this pinch-faced snottiness about the rich really comes from: from the left’s abandonment of the ideal of growing the economy in order to make more jobs, more money and more comfort for all. On today’s increasingly moralised left, balking at the undeserving rich has replaced the goal of ending poverty.
For further analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s interview, listen to Coffee House Shots with Fraser Nelson, Isabel Hardman and James Forsyth:
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.