Note to Corbyn: Your Political Opponents Are Not Evil

Labour’s new leader believes the ruling Conservatives are determined to wrong working people.

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest in London, England, July 8
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest in London, England, July 8 (Flickr/Jasn)

Why is it so difficult for Labourites in Britain to see the ruling Conservatives as anything but cruel and vindictive?

In July, there was Stephen Timms, a Labour representative for East Ham, London, accusing the government of an “attack on the low paid” and not caring about child poverty.

In August, leadership contender Andy Burnham chipped in, saying the Conservatives were “playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people” and “terrorizing” the disabled.

Now the man who beat him to the leadership is at it, writing in The Observer that the deficit is “just an excuse” for the ruling party to “railroad through the same old Tory agenda: driving down wages, cutting taxes for the wealthiest, allowing house prices to spiral out of reach, selling off our national assets and attacking trade unions.”

To be fair, there is some truth in Corbyn’s accusation. Britain’s Conservatives did hide behind the fiscal crisis Labour left them to enact reforms they championed anyway. But they have been more frank in recent years about their intentions to shrink the state and reduce people’s dependence on it and the way they’re going about it is not by depressing wages or letting home prices rise.

In fact, the point of their agenda is to achieve the opposite of what Corbyn accuses them of.

Rather than drive down wages, the Conservatives are introducing a higher minimum wage than Labour advocated and cutting business taxes so employers can afford it. (Something Labour wouldn’t do.)

Rather than cut taxes for the rich, the wealthiest are paying more in tax than under Labour. Yes, the Conservatives cut the highest income tax rate. But as a result — as many right-leaning economists predicted — the rich ended up paying more. Surely that is what matters to lefties who want the rich to pay their “fair share”? Or is some figure in the tax code more important to Corbyn than what the state actually has to spend on education, health care, poverty reduction, etc.?

Rather than allowing housing prices to skyrocket, the Conservatives have introduced schemes to help first-time buyers and advocate more homebuilding to bring down prices. The problem is that in many communities, they are resisted by not-in-my-backyard lefties who don’t want to sacrifice green fields for suburbs.

If by “selling off national assets,” Corbyn refers to the privatization of the Royal Mail — fine. But this was an enormously successful privatization that should improve services for customers.

And if by “attacking trade unions,” he means that the Conservatives don’t want unions to have the power to automatically enlist workers in a given industry — well, if he wants to defend a system that tells workers they shouldn’t be allowed to choose their own union, or choose not to be in a union at all, good luck!

Corbyn may disagree with what the Conservatives are doing. He may believe that privatization doesn’t work or that the best way to make housing more affordable is to set arbitrary limits on how much landlords can charge in rent. Rightwingers will disagree and they can debate the issues on their merits.

But that’s not what Corbyn and his supporters are saying. Unlike the Conservatives, they don’t argue that their political opponents are mistaken. They argue that their opponents are determined to do wrong; that their very objective is to hurt people.

This blog argued last month that a hallmark of civil discourse is to recognize the good intentions of one’s political opponents. It is also the hallmark of effective opposition. Labour is not going to win more votes by screaming “evil Tories!” every time the government does something it disagrees with. It must either persuade voters that its own program is more credible than the ruling party’s or be content to stay in opposition again after the next election.

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