Reading this article from a middle-aged, middle-class Corbyn supporter this morning while eating my breakfast got me on my imaginary soapbox in the shower again. This time I was ruminating on some of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies: The Independent has one of its handy charts showing some of Corbyn’s policies and others that it is suggesting he might have in the future (I cannot see these policies listed on Corbyn’s official website so I take them with a pinch of salt). But one of the Indy’s hypothetical Corbyn policies got me thinking – just what is so wrong with being left-wing? “Leftie” is a bit like “feminist” – no one wants to own the title for fear of seeming out of touch, too radical, idealistic, naive or downright dangerous(!?) I don’t mind owning both though and my answer to my own soapbox question is: nothing. There is nothing wrong with being left-wing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to re-frame the debate away from the right-wing capitalist politics that has a stranglehold on our society, our press, our environment, and our children’s futures.
Perhaps the fear is that the debate cannot be re-framed. Britain is currently right-wing, so the story seems to go. It is right-wing because the Tories won the election, so obviously no left-wing ideas will ever gain traction and no-one is going to win an election on a left-wing platform ever again so why bother?
What if previous generations had given up so easily? Can you imagine it: “the general public will never support votes for women so we may as well give up”; “the acceptance of homosexuality will never be mainstream so why bother continuing to argue for gay marriage?”; “most people don’t want to end slavery and most politicians see us as a lunatic fringe so lets just call it a day.” No. Neither can I. Just because something isn’t currently popular doesn’t mean it will never become the norm. Who now (aside from members of a lunatic fringe) would argue for taking the vote away from women or for re-enslaving black people? Exactly. The grounds of the debate in these areas has shifted so significantly that there is no longer any question of challenging the status quo – which in itself was once a challenge to the status quo. There are still outspoken opponents of gay marriage because this re-framing of the debate is more recent, but give it fifty years and it will be a similar story – people will look back in amazement that anyone ever stopped gay people from marrying in the first place.
That’s how our history goes: what is accepted now is not necessarily what will be accepted in the future. How do things change? By people talking and debating and protesting and calling for change and rallying support. Can Corbyn win? Possibly. Should we be afraid if he does? Of course not. Labour supporters seem to be afraid that if Corbyn wins then Labour will lose the election, which seems ridiculously defeatist. The Tories and their allies seem to be thinking along similar lines and want Corbyn to win so that Labour will lose, but why should Labour lose on a Corbyn ticket? Because he is too left-wing? Because the British voting public is not left-wing and will never vote for a left-wing agenda? That is the argument, but Labour will never win on a left-wing ticket if it doesn’t try; if it rolls over and goes along with what the Tories do to try to “fit in” with the national mood. Remember what your mother used to say: if all your friends jumped off a cliff would you do it too? Corbyn was the only one of the leadership candidates to vote against the Tories’ changes to Child Tax Credits – this from an opposition, left-wing party.
But back to the policy that got me on my imaginary soapbox. The Indy states that Corbyn is in favour of bringing back the 50% tax rate on earnings over £150,000 (which it says is about 1% of earners) and that the British public would possibly support a 75% tax rate on incomes over £1 million (and it is worth thinking that if only 1% of people earn above £150k then what percentage earn over £1 million?) Why is it that a government can take away money from poor working people (because Child Tax Credits are not only paid to scapegoated so-called “scoungers,” but to people who are actually working, at actual jobs, to try to put food on the table for their kids) who actually really need the money, but heaven forbid a government tries to take any (more) money away from people who already have more money than any sensible person would know what to do with.
I have never had a job that earned me more than £20k (so far – hey, I am as aspirational as the rest of Labour’s imaginary target audience: if I was offered a job earning above £150k I would jump at it, but I also wouldn’t cry foul about paying a higher rate of tax). In 2012-2013, the median income in the UK before tax across all age-ranges was £21k; the mean income was £29.6k before tax. That means that on average people in the UK are not far-off my own experience. Great, so maybe what I have to say below will resonate somewhat.
Imagine that you work hard for your money. Or maybe you don’t work all that hard, but you try to look like you are working hard. Maybe you work part-time and work harder than someone who works full-time? Maybe you work part-time and also look after your kids; maybe you work full-time and also look after your kids, maybe you don’t have any kids and you work full-time, or only part-time because you can’t find a full-time job, or because you want time to focus on your music. Whatever. You work. At a job. And you pay income tax if you earn over £10.6k a year. The experience of the rich and super-rich is not so different to us – they work, full-time, part-time, more or less hard than other people, and they pay tax on their earnings.
Think about what you pay for with your £20k of income? Rent, food, clothes, transportation, maybe the odd trip to the pub or takeaway pizza. The normal sort of stuff. Then think about how little your entire yearly salary means to someone who earns over £1 million a year. £20k is peanuts for some people. Not a lot of people. But for some people it really isn’t that much money in comparison to all of the other money that they have. If you and I can live on £20k then why do some people think that they need millions to live on and how-very-dare-you-suggest-that-I-can-spare-a-bit-for-the-treasury?
Hypothetically speaking (because the UK does not currently have a 50% tax rate on earning over £150k or of 75% on earnings over £1 million), why is it a terrible idea if people who earn a lot of money (which, remember is not most people – that’s not to say we should target people because they are a minority, but the idea that this will “hurt” everyone is right-wing propaganda) pay more tax.
Very rich people who pay higher rates of income tax are paying the same amount of tax as you and I on the amount of money they earn that is the same as the amount of money that you and I earn. So, for example, they would pay 20% on all income below £32k (currently); 40% on income between £32k and £150k; 50% (for comparison, currently 45%) on income between £150k and £1 million; and 75% on income over £1 million. So the only bit of their income they are being taxed more on is the bit over £1 million. The bit that the vast vast vast majority of us will never make in our wildest dreams. And we still manage (just about in some cases) to eat, buy stuff, send our kids to school, live, breathe, laugh, all that good stuff. Why do the super-rich need their money more than we need good schools, hospitals, roads, a future for our planet etc? What are they doing with it that is so important it outweighs the public good?
Ah, you say knowingly, but the super-rich need to keep their money so they can invest it in things. Right. So are they investing in things that make the world a better place or in things that make themselves richer? Um… well… they invest in things that create jobs. No. No they don’t. Not generally speaking. And why is it that we only think of “investment” as something that makes money for the person putting up the money in the first place? Why can’t taxes be seen as an investment in public services; public services without which the world would be a much shittier place? Why can’t we apply the old adage “a penny saved is a penny earned” to things like building council houses so that in years to come Local Authorities do not have to spend thousands on housing benefit payments to buy-to-let private landlords? Why is it that we only apply this gem of money-saving wisdom when it comes to snatching Child Tax Credit payments away from all those scroungy single-mums out there?
Why? Because it is easy to attack the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, to attack people too wrapped up in their day-to-day struggles to survive to notice politics and people who don’t really understand (because the education system has failed them) what it is that they are (not) voting for. It is not very easy to attack the rich or even to sensibly suggest that it is not in society’s best interests for them to keep getting richer and hoarding money like Smaug. It is not very easy to argue that, because the people who have a lot of money can use that money to buy power. Not in the actual sense of buying votes because we are, after all, still a democracy, but money buys influence and money helps shape the debate, so that an opposition Labour Party thinks it has no choice but to abstain on a bill that will hurt the very working families it is supposed to represent.
There is nothing wrong with being left-wing. Those with money and power and influence will use that money and power and influence to make us think that being left-wing is too retro, too naive, too far-out, or too dangerous to be in with a serious chance of changing anything. But look at Scotland and the SNP. How many young (and not so young) acquaintances of mine expressed the desire to be Scottish during the general election so that they could vote for something that they actually believed in, rather than having to vote for Ed Milliband and his endless carefully-choreographed soundbites?
There is nothing wrong with being left-wing. Take a deep breath and say it again. Repeat it like a mantra. The public sector is vilified by the right-wing but where would this country be without its teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses etc? The rich will be okay with their private hospitals, schools and care-homes, but what about the rest of us? People who work for other people are not the enemy. Why not re-nationalise the railways? Maybe then my husband would get to work on time on occasion and while we’re at it we could do with some investment in the railways to stop our reliance on cars – have you tried to go anywhere during rush hour (or any other time of day) lately, it is madness and very bad for the environment. What is wrong with wanting a world-class education for all our kids and then allowing the best and brightest of them to attend university without crippling debt? Why do we think £1 million really isn’t a lot of money when it really is a lot of money? Is it because we know that you can’t buy much in London for £1 million these days? Whose fault is that then? Not the teachers and nurses and shop-workers and small-business owners whose salaries would have bought them a comfortable family home in decades past but now won’t stretch to much more than a two-bed flat in most of the South East.
If the system is broken don’t blame those at the bottom who did not break it. Find someone (or lots of people) who will speak truth to power and try to re-frame the debate. Is Jeremy Corbyn that person? Who knows. But I do know that just because he is “left-wing” is not a reason to run for the hills.