Magazine article The Spectator

The New Class War

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Class War

Article excerpt

Would-be leaders of the left are harnessing the mood of angry populism

A spectre is haunting Europe -- and knocking on the door of Downing Street. It has installed a president in France and a mayor in New York. It is causing mayhem in Spain and Greece and insurgency in Scotland and it may yet halt Hillary Clinton's march to the White House. This idea -- left-wing populism -- is a radical, coherent and modern response to the financial crisis and the hardship suffered since. It is being effectively harnessed by Ed Miliband, taking him within touching distance of victory. And it may well become the creed that guides the next five years of British government.

The Labour manifesto that was published this week is a response to the new populist mood. It buries the pragmatic 'New Labour' era which sought to appeal as much to employers as to workers. In its place comes the politics of division: a Britain of tenants vs landlords, rich vs poor, even Premier League vs small football clubs. Miliband's agenda is mainly about what he'll do to business, not what he'd do with government. He'll break up banks, interfere with pay and make it easier for workers to sue their bosses. Miliband stands before us, catapult in hand, promising to slay these corporate Goliaths.

Not so long ago this would be seen as a quixotic revival of 1970s socialism, and a form of political suicide. But even Miliband's critics must now admit that the creed is not only just populist but popular -- and winning elections elsewhere. The Tea Party of the American right is now on the wane. The rising force in western politics is the populism of the left -- which is (to paraphrase Blair) about the politics of anger, not the politics of answers. A new angry brigade is emerging, and Conservatives underestimate it at their peril.

When Ed Miliband ran for leader, unkind souls mocked him for his wonkish phrases: the 'pre-distribution' of wealth, or denouncing as 'predators' companies he did not like (energy firms, banks, etc). But no conservative was laughing when Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York on a very similar ticket. He told a 'tale of two cities', of an inequality created because politicians had 'too often catered to the interests of the elite -- rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers'. Just like Miliband, de Blasio recited a list of villains -- from 'large, well-connected corporations' to 'unscrupulous landlords'. To the Clinton-era New Democrats, this was an excruciating leap backwards, but de Blasio demonstrated that it is now the future: he won 73 per cent of the vote. In London, an overjoyed Diane Abbott declared that de Blasio 'won by breaking every rule in the New Labour playbook'. He was invited to address the Labour party conference last year, hailed as living proof that populism can win elections.

Now, for the general election, Miliband is using the same tactics -- list the villains and shake your fist at them. 'When the knock on the door comes from the big six energy companies,' he said, 'when the banks send a message asking for a better deal for them, when the tax avoiders turn up demanding that the Inland Revenue turns the other way, or when the phone call comes from Rupert Murdoch -- who do you want in Downing Street?' This is Miliband's campaign: the 50p tax and the Mansion Tax are not important because they raise money. …

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