Can he make red the new blue?

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Labour's Corbyn Still Fighting the Last (Class) War

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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A British anti-capitalism group called Class War attacked an eatery called the Cereal Killer Café on Saturday. The café owners' crime, according to the protesters? `Gentrifying' London's east end. Now, complaining that there's not enough affordable housing in the capital is one thing; but throwing smoke bombs and paint at a small business that's helping to enrich an area that wasn't safe to walk around 20 years ago?  

Britain's class divisions are back on the radar because of Jeremy Corbyn's ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party, which held its annual conference this week.  I've been to previous Labour conferences. It's oddly like being transported back to the 1970s, with some speakers addressing the audience as "comrades" and delegates applauding every "eat the rich" comment.

Corbyn does seem to offer a genuinely different approach to politics, at odds with his portrayal in the tabloid press as a closet communist. At the regular weekly parliamentary pantomime that is Prime Minister's Questions, he opted to ask David Cameron about subjects suggested by members of the public, albeit without much of a challenge to the answers. In his conference speech on Tuesday, he made a sincere argument for "politics that's kinder, more inclusive, bottom up, not top down."  Even his dress sense -- brown jacket, non-matching trousers and beard more reminiscent of a geography lecturer than a potential prime minister -- strays from the current Westminster norm of sharp dark suits.

So much for style; what about the substance? As the blogger Guido Fawkes points out, the practical considerations of being in charge typically force a more pragmatic approach to policy from even the most polemic of leaders. Corbyn and his team have relaxed their stance on a range of issues including U.K. membership of the European Union, Bank of England independence and how soon (though not whether) industries such as the railways might be taken back into public ownership. And Corbyn's move to co-opt a team of heavyweight economic advisors including Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, best-selling author Thomas Piketty and former Bank of England policy maker Danny Blanchflower is an early recognition that his party needs to convince voters it can be trusted to run the economy.  

Janan Ganesh, writing in Tuesday's Financial Times, makes a convincing and intriguing argument that Corbyn's ascent is evidence of how well the U.K. is doing:

A Corbyn rally is not a band of desperate workers fighting to improve their circumstances, it is a communion of comfortable people working their way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They have physical health and security; they crave belonging and self-actualisation. They are in politics for the dopamine squirt that comes with total belief and immersion in like-minded company. There is no disgrace in this but nor is there any residue of Labour’s worldly origins, as a party devoted to the amelioration of working conditions through parliamentary means.

Margaret Thatcher's unforgivable crime (to my mind) was her utter indifference to the suffering of entire communities as she refurbished the British economy. Her genius, though, was recognizing that what the working classes wanted was a chance to get on the housing ladder, the opportunity to send their kids to university, and a living wage that could afford a Ford Mondeo in the driveway as well as food on the table.

There are still important pockets of poverty and despair in the U.K. And there are jarring aspects of the current government's economic policies, which tend to portray every recipient of state benefits as a work-shy wastrel, ignoring the nuances of individual circumstances.

But, by and large, Britons are in pretty good shape, living in a rich country that already gives workers many of the rights that Labour has fought over for a century. Corbyn's comment that "you may be born poor but you don’t have to stay poor" is already true, and has been for years; my family were poor enough for me to qualify for free school dinners, and yet here I am opining on global markets for the world's leading financial information provider.

It's Corbyn's reference, though, to "the many with little or nothing" that jars. Here's the relevant passage from his speech: 

Since the dawn of history in virtually every human society there are some people who are given a great deal and many more people who are given little or nothing. Some people have property and power, class and capital, status and clout which are denied to the many.

That completely ignores the concepts of aspiration and opportunity, which Labour should champion as the most obvious way for the have-nots to become have-yachts. No matter what people are "given," a modern society is one in which it's not where you're from that matters, it's where you're at. Property, power, capital, status and clout are available to anyone with the smarts to build a good life through hard work. As for class: Seriously, in 2015, who gives a stuff about such outdated labels? 

The U.K. is lucky; its "many" may have had miserly wage increases in recent years, but they're in an economy that's growing at an annual clip of at least 2.6 percent with zero inflation and an unemployment rate that's dropped to 5.5 percent from 8.5 percent in fewer than four years. Corbyn's comment is at best disingenuous, at worst a throwback to old-style Labour religion that will appeal to the party faithful but not beyond.  

I remember sparring about politics with people who used to put up Class War posters at my university three decades ago; hipsters and trustafarians dominated the ranks of the self-proclaimed anarchists in their brand new Timberland boots, their wrists adorned with woven friendship bracelets picked up while summering in India or Thailand.

The point they and their present-day descendants are unable (or unwilling) to grasp is that working-class people -- however hard the subgroup is to classify -- want to live and work in nice areas with posh cafes and safe streets just as much as the middle class does. If Corbyn can't acknowledge those aspirations and tailor his policies to the many, he'll squander an opportunity to build a credible alternative to the Conservatives by the time the next election rolls around in 2020.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net