If we learned one thing from Labour Party Conference it’s that capitalism is bad. The union leaders said so, the delegates said so, Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Party, said so – at length. And do you know what? They’re right. Capitalism is bad, very, very bad – at defending itself.
As anti-business policy after anti-business policy was announced, despair at the poverty of the response of the business lobby was matched only by grudging admiration for the message discipline of Corbyn and his supporters. The bar is set low in UK politics, where the monstrous incompetence of Theresa May’s Conservative government is matched only by the appalling unelectability of Labour – for every Tory misstep on Brexit or housing there is a Corbyn error on anti-Semitism or the poisoning of the Skripals.
Yet, if the commentariat are the measure of things, the Corbyn narrative is becoming the dominant frame of UK politics. (I fully appreciate the delicious irony of using the language of Mandelson to describe Corbyn’s Labour, but Seumas Milne has learned well from the Master.)
For George Eaton of the New Statesman, the speech was ‘a declaration that the left is now the mainstream’ defining, as Corbyn claimed, the ‘new common sense of our time’.
Tim Montgomerie observes:
‘Don’t agree with it but Corbyn has a comprehensive and maybe compelling vision for post-crash future of Britain. May doesn’t and that leaves Tories very vulnerable. Much more than that, it leaves future of our free enterprise system vulnerable. Tick, tock, tick tock for Tory MPs.’
Thoughtful Tory MP Robert Halfon tweeted:
‘Serious stuff from Labour this week that may resonate with millions of workers – @Conservatives need a thoughtful response to this at conference with a true vision & passion for a #Workers @ToryWorkers #socialjustice agenda . Predictable responses just won’t cut it with public.’
The overall sense is that whatever you think about the details, this is good politics. But where does this feeling come from? Labour’s ideas are not unchallengeable. On the contrary, where they’ve not already been tried and failed, they are fatally flawed. The problem is that they are unchallenged.
At the heart of it is the notion that business cannot be defended because capitalism itself is indefensible. Why? Because of the bailout of the banks. Because senior executives pay. Because the 1pc. And so on. But truthfully, because no-one can be bothered to mount either an intellectual defence or a popular critique of business, despite the fact that over 75 per cent of workers in the UK are in the private sector.
It has been known for a long time that while voters express contempt for politicians in general, they invariably think more fondly of their own MP. The same is true of people’s view of business. They may have an aversion to fat cats, but they don’t want governments imposing burdens on the company that they work for – its prosperity guarantees their future, and vice versa.
This should be the critique of Corbyn’s plan to force companies to give shares to their workers. Yes, it’s appropriation. No, there are no details of how to lawfully do it. But it is relatively easy to work out, as the FT did, that 10 per cent of shares of UK companies is some £250bn and with government confiscating dividends above £500 per worker, this is a new company tax worth £25bn a year to government. And where do company taxes come from? Not the mythical Scrooge McDucks swimming in vaults of gold doubloons. Company taxes come from lower wages for workers, higher prices in shops and lower pensions because of lower dividends to funds. When described like that, it doesn’t sound so appealing.
In the end, this is the fatal flaw in Labour’s policies. An attack on companies is an attack on workers. An injury to one is, to coin an old union phrase, an injury to all. If it wasn’t for Brexit perhaps the UK’s business friendly MPs – still the vast majority – would be making the case against state appropriation that hurts workers.