Bill Jamieson: how much support does Jeremy Corbyn have?

The Corby frenzy may be dominating the media but what of the politics of the wider public, asks Bill Jamieson

Jeremy Corbyn has his photograph taken with a younger generation of fans. Picture: Getty
Jeremy Corbyn has his photograph taken with a younger generation of fans. Picture: Getty
Jeremy Corbyn has his photograph taken with a younger generation of fans. Picture: Getty

CORBY here, Corby there, Corby everywhere: such has been the frenzied media coverage of the new Labour leader it seems we cannot get enough. In just five days the new leader and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell appear to have transformed political Britain – and enjoyed a level of coverage befitting for a newly elected government.

We don’t know the fine policy detail as yet. But of the general direction of travel is clear. Nationalisation of the railways, opposition to welfare caps, higher public spending, more Bank of England money printing, higher taxes on the well off – and all this accompanied by camera shots of whooping, chanting supporters.

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Enthusiastic young Corbynistas are interviewed for BBC Newsnight. And the more we see of the tie-less, slightly dishevelled Jeremy Corbyn, with the off-white vest, ill-matching jacket and trousers, the more the public seems to warm to this polite and disarming persona.

Hectic and shambolic though all this may appear, the official Opposition Labour is being transformed from social democratic somnambulance into a militant socialist collective.

But what of the politics of the wider public? The tens of millions of voters who turned away from Gordon Brown in 2010 and who just four months ago rejected Ed Miliband and put a Conservative government in power? What of those who are set to bear the full frontal cost of Corbynism?

Little is heard of the polar opposite of the Corby-McDonnell phenomenon – those who will be required to pay up; the middle class that is being targeted; the quiet voters with quiet lives who do not spend their spare time emoting at political rallies or on local branch canvassing rotas? What of those who are not media pundits, or Lefty audience fodder for BBC Question Time and broadcast studio debates? Those who do not resort to social media every other hour and who are not constantly berating “Right wing media” on the Twittersphere?

What are we to make of this Silence of the Lambs? Are they forming an orderly queue for the Corbyn-McDonnell tax threshing machine?

By way of aide memoire, here’s a recap of the views of the new shadow chancellor. Labour, he has said, could tackle the budget deficit by halting tax cuts to the very rich and corporations. He wants a 60 per cent marginal rate of tax on all incomes above £100,000 and a wealth tax on the richest 10 per cent. Corbyn has indicated the highest rate of tax would rise to only 50 per cent – though national insurance is also expected to increase.

Mr McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, has also repeatedly expressed a desire to nationalise previously privatised industries, and if necessary without compensation to shareholders.

Such a policy, if it ever came near to implementation, would be property confiscation by the state. And once you start down that route, there is no saying who (and what) would not escape the reach of this exciting, politics-with-a-difference approach: not so much a sweeping new broom as a very long-handed rapacious rake.

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Never mind the consternation of private shareholders; think of those who are the biggest investors in privatised industries: the pension funds of tens of millions of people.

To confiscate property without compensation in this way violates basic tenets of justice. It would almost certainly run foul of the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr Corbyn has long advocated that the rail industry is taken back into public ownership. But the cost of such a policy – assuming compensation is paid to the rail operators – would be a huge call on public funds. For all our grumbles about rail services, history provides little reassurance that public ownership is the solution. Between 1950 and the 1980s, when publicly owned British Rail held sway, passenger numbers almost halved. They have soared since privatisation.

The new shadow chancellor has also urged that “democratic control of the major economic decisions” would be restored by removing Bank of England control over interest rates and bringing the nationalised banks under direct control. They would be forced to lend and invest their resources “to modernise our economy and put people back to work” while a “People’s QE” would fund infrastructure projects.

Quite apart from questions as to who would be directing this lending and the criteria applied (other than political advantage), this would appear to take a large chunk of government spending out of normal fiscal channels such as the annual budget – and out of parliamentary scrutiny.

On debt and deficit reduction, we have yet to hear, other than vague talk of removing billions of pounds of subsidies to business – but presumably not those relating to renewable energy, and presumably not those relating to allowances for capital investment, and presumably not those relating to export support, or for skills training and development.

The overriding mantra is that, after six years, austerity must now be ended. But it was Labour, when Ed Balls was shadow chancellor, that urged budget deficit reduction targets should be lowered and spread over a longer period.

The chief reason that public spending has had to be constrained – and a fact that Labour, new, old or Corbynista, has failed abysmally to address – is that Public Sector Net Debt continues to rise. It is set to hit £1.5 trillion this financial year, or 80.3 per cent of GDP. As for debt interest, it will suck out £46.7 billion from the national coffers this year, rising to £51bn next. But the direction of Corbyn travel is for more spending and borrowing, not less.

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In Scotland, of course, we do politics differently. Come the Holyrood election next May the SNP will be offering higher public spending – and (after 2017), higher taxes; the Labour Party will be offering more public spending – and higher taxes; and the Greens will be offering more public spending – and higher taxes. What democracy! What “politics with a difference” for voters! Barring the Conservatives, we’re back where we started – “they’re all the same!”

It would be dangerous for Corbynistas to assume that the current febrile coverage accorded this week implies a wider consensus. Quietude is one thing, support is something else. Beware the Silence of the Lambs.