The wealthy used to be scared of democracy. Inequality is now at such obscene levels that it ought not to be possible for anything other than a party of radical redistribution to get elected. But the wealthy have discovered a way around this. If you give people the wrong information, then you can persuade them to vote against their interests. If you can persuade someone that there’s treasure to their right and a cliff edge to their left – when in fact the converse is the case – then you may be able to get them to freely walk off a cliff.
In the 1980s Thatcher and Reagan managed to get the poor to vote against their interests by persuading them that cutting taxes at the top would make all of society wealthier: the wealth would ‘trickle down’ from rich to poor. To be fair, the radical free market agenda had never been tried, and so it was not completely obvious that ‘trickle down’ economics would fail. Thirty five years later we know that it doesn’t work. A low tax/low regulation economy has not only led to great inequality, but to lower levels of growth than those we achieved in the higher-tax/higher-regulation economy of 1945-1975. It has also produced great financial instability, culminating in the global meltdown of 2008.
Post-crash the ‘trickle down’ myth is no longer believable: it’s too optimistic in its hope that we will all be wealthier. There’s a new myth aimed at persuading not only the poor but the 99% who no longer benefit from the Thatcherite model to vote against their interests. This time it’s a blatant lie: that too much public spending caused the crash of 2008. A failure of markets is rewritten as a failure of progressive government.
I would never have guessed that it would be possible to make a huge number of people believe something that it takes only a little basic research to find out is false. But it turns out that if you say something often enough, with homely but wildly inappropriate analogies between national economies and household budgets, and you get two thirds of the newspapers to repeat it every day, you can get intelligent people to believe it, no matter how absurd it is.
Lots of people on the left are angry at how so many people could have voted for a party that has caused such terrible suffering in the country, and has promised more of the same. My fellow philosopher Rebecca Roach blogged that she has defriended all her Tory-supporting Facebook friends, on the grounds that their support for the party as morally objectionable as racism, sexism or homophobia. But I suspect a lot of decent people voted Conservative at the last minute because they were genuinely convinced that an incoming Labour government would ‘again’ destroy the economy and cause untold misery to everyone. The ‘too much spending’ myth is a total fiction, but it’s a very scary story.
The Labour party is currently regrouping and learning lessons. Many are arguing that it must, like Blair, swallow the Thatcherite economic orthodoxy if it wants to win elections. I fear it’s almost inevitable that Miliband’s modest attempts to move away from Thatcherite economics, which caused him to be so despised by the establishment, will not be attempted by another Labour leader for a generation. But Labour lost the election not because of its policies, which were hugely popular, but because of its inability to counter Tory lies.
Whilst Labour are introspecting, the Tories are moving in on Labour turf, forming a narrative that they are compassionate ‘blue collar’ Conservatives, the true party of working people. An absurd proposition, but then so too was the claim that spending caused the crash. It was in 2010 whilst Labour was distracted trying to find a leader that the Tories made most headway embedding the ‘too much spending’ fiction in the public mind. The signs are that the Tories hope to spend this Labour leadership contest trying to embed the idea that they are kind as well as competent.
Instead of rethinking its politics, Labour should be putting serious thought into how to make themselves a great deal more effective at persuading voters of the truth. Depressing as it is to admit, a more charismatic leader is probably an essential first step.