FREE UNIVERSITY TUITION
From London Review of Books:
What was heartening about the general election was that it suggested a new symbolic status for policy of the sort that technocratic politics was unable to manufacture. Amid all the noise, slogans and smears of the campaign, it seems that Labour’s simple, eye-catching policies (free university tuition, more bank holidays, free school meals for all, more NHS funding, no tax rises for 95 per cent of earners) had the ability to cut through. These policies were crafted to produce a left-populist platform, with the idea in mind that policies can influence voters, but only if they are sufficiently straightforward to be able to hold their shape as they travel around an increasingly complex, chaotic public sphere. New Labour had two sets of experts: one to run its technocratic policy-making machine, the other to handle the media, which it believed could be tamed. But once editorial bottlenecks no longer determine the flow of news, and neurotic control of image is no longer realistic, policies must be designed to spread of their own accord, like internet memes. Trump’s ‘Build a wall!’ did this. Less propitiously, once the phrase ‘dementia tax’ had attached itself to the Tory campaign, it couldn’t be dislodged.
This isn’t to say that Corbyn himself wasn’t instrumental. Given the surge in youth turnout, ‘free university tuition’ may have been decisive in ruining May’s hopes of a majority, especially given Corbyn’s promise to explore ways of alleviating existing debt burdens. But not just any leader could credibly have made this promise: Nick Clegg famously reneged on it in 2010, and no Clegg-alike could have got away with making it in 2017. Centrist Labour figures and their friends in the press continue to believe it is a bad policy, on the grounds that it uses general taxation to subsidise middle-class privileges. Corbyn is different, not because he has a different view of the economics, but because he has a different political biography. What’s more, he has become a valuable asset in the ‘attention economy’ of the digital landscape, as eyes are drawn inexorably towards personal and emotional quirks. As with Trump during his election campaign, Corbyn converts weaknesses into strength. The combination of his avuncular demeanour and the earnest policy-heavy document of the Labour manifesto proved an unexpected hit.
Blairites complain that Corbyn offers simple solutions to complex problems. (They used to complain that he had some plausible policies but was unelectable: it seems that the charge-sheet has now been inverted.) But one of Corbyn’s solutions is difficult to argue with – namely, the resurrection of fiscal policy as a central tool of social and economic transformation, following 25 years in which both parties were paranoid about being tagged as ‘tax and spend’ fanatics. For the last ten years central bankers have pleaded with politicians to use fiscal policy more liberally in order to relieve the macroeconomic burden on monetary policy, but their call has fallen on deaf ears, especially in Europe. Coming in the wake of quantitative easing, one of the most technically obscure economic policies ever devised, the return of fiscal policy is welcome, both economically and politically. Corbyn has forced the Conservatives’ hand on this, turning austerity into a toxic political issue.
With each announcement that austerity will have to be extended because spending cuts have failed once more to reduce the government deficit (just as most economists warned all along they would), the sense of disbelief has grown. In the worst cases, such as Greece, deficit-reduction schemes extend decades into the future. Precarity and rising housing costs trap young people in a state of perpetual pre-adulthood, unable to separate themselves from their parents. The need to escape this loop is ever more pressing, yet all that governments have been promising is more and more of it.