Corbyn Must Look to the Tories in Order to Sell His Message to Voters

Against all odds, Labour has returned to its roots. Viewed as the 200-1 outside candidate when he announced his intention to run in the leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn gathered together huge support to win the election by a higher margin than Tony Blair did in 1994.

Regardless of whether his victory is due to the weakness of his opponents or to a genuine democratic socialist shift, left-right politics is back. It does not matter whether this is a throwback to the ‘80s. With the Tories determined to continue Thatcherite policies, Corbyn has tapped into a sense on the left that a stronger foil was needed in Parliament to challenge them and enliven democratic debate.

Many on the left as well as the right have claimed that Corbyn's ascendancy has made Labour unelectable: from Blair’s capture of ‘Mondeo man’ to Cameron’s ‘aspirational’ voters, socialist-inspired policies have long since been an anathema to a suspicious, materialistic British public.

Corbyn’s first challenge will be to show an election-winning coalition of voters why he is no loony. This will be difficult.

In having to respond to Tory jibes that he is a socialist who will spend voters’ hard earned tax money on benefit cheats and illegal immigrants, Corbyn will come up against a strong and coherent Tory message which has had the advantage of five years to percolate through UK society. The Tories have successfully argued that the country’s finances - like those of a household - must be run responsibly when in debt; that hard work is a virtue; that aspiration is good; that people should take responsibility for their own lives; that private companies have a role to play in the delivery of public services.

Most importantly they have claimed misleadingly that New Labour’s own ‘third way’ of increased public spending and support for private business caused the financial crisis. Big public spending and deficits are now viewed by many as dangerous, even immoral.

Corbyn must avoid the usual follies of the left

To sell his central ideas, Corbyn cannot merely take the moral high ground or assume his ideology will create some sort of ‘right consciousness’ among the electorate. In the UK, ‘socialism’ is very firmly a dirty word.

Corbyn must avoid the usual follies of the left - patronising people, using technocratic language, using too many statistics, or dismissing as wrong those with whom he disagrees.

To succeed Corbyn must look to the Tories. In selling their own message, Cameron and Osborne have used simple morality stories, repeated often. The key is that they ‘make sense’ and have a compelling appeal to people who want to keep their heads down and do the right thing. Swing voters, in other words.

If the left has often mistakenly thought that it has the monopoly on all things good and true, it has utterly failed to convince voters in recent years. Corbyn must adopt a similar technique to the Tories: he must frame his policies in a moral context that appeals to common virtues - characteristics that people value.

Notions such as collective responsibility, family values, loving one’s neighbour and helping the needy are all things people respect and value, whoever they vote for. That the Tories are still having trouble presenting themselves as a compassionate party is a weak spot in their otherwise solid image. That even the usually hostile and xenophobic Sun and Daily Mail have called for Cameron to accept more Syrian refugees shows that virtues are not monopolised by either right or left. However, when it comes to the economy, Corbyn needs to show why the left matters again and can be trusted.

Corbyn’s challenge will be to find a way to show that government, public spending and taxation can embody and deliver widely agreed virtues while showing that the Tories will damage them.

More about the author

About the author

As well as a regular contributor on politics for Disclaimer, Liam has written for the New Statesman, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post, When Saturday Comes and the Sunday Express.

He is currently back at school completing an MA at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.

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