Can the middle classes have socialism without sacrifices? That’s the question at the heart of the row over Kate Osamor’s council house.
A new book-length essay by Chris Clarke, son of New Labour cabinet minister Charles, explores how a fundamental world view Corbynism is built on leads its followers to see nothing wrong in a member of Parliament occupying a council house in a borough where thousands of poor residents go without.
A key myth bought into by Labour’s “populists” (as opposed to “pluralists”) is that society’s problems are cynically imposed from above, rather than being natural consequences of unregulated capitalism, labelled the “puppet master myth” by Clarke. One of the many problems with this view is that it undermines collective responsibility.
If poverty, climate change, and under-funded public services are present by design, all that’s needed is a change in who pulls the strings. We in the 99% are told we’re the “oppressed underdogs” whose role is simply to elect a Labour government. But while dividing society into ‘the elite 1%’ and ‘the rest of us’ may make sense as an electoral strategy, socialism always requires a broader tax base than that.
This is the opposite story to the one John F. Kennedy told 1960s America, when he asked them to “join in that historic effort” and said “in your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
The lack of agency ascribed to individuals by this myth, told by populists of the left and right alike, leads its followers to disregard the good individuals can do. Why should Osamor, who earns £77,000 a year, just putting her in McDonnell’s 95% bracket, move out of her council house when it’s the government’s fault there aren’t enough homes? For the same reason Jeremy Corbyn volunteered at a homeless shelter, even though it’s the Tories, not him, who are responsible for today’s homelessness crisis.
It’s also what led the far-left to bemoan the media’s lack of climate change coverage one week, and then denounce President Macron’s carbon tax to help tackle climate change the next. Why should ordinary people have to change their habits to avert impending environmental catastrophe, they asked, when it’s the elites who are at fault?
In his defence of Osamor, Owen Jones quoted Nye Bevan’s vision for council housing to provide homes for “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher, and the farm labourer” in the same community. But Bevan also said “socialism is the language of priorities”, a notion alien to those who believe the establishment can merely pull a few levers to solve or create housing shortages.
On entering office in 1945, Bevan first had to provide for those in immediate need, putting aside his hatred of pre-fabricated houses to get the poorest into homes as soon as possible. The new towns, which were to be the classless mixed communities Bevan dreamed of, by contrast remained unfinished by the time Labour was defeated in 1951.
The rich who remain in council housing while others in far greater need are denied that right, ignore their own power to change someone’s life for the better and, unlike Bevan, prioritise ideals over people.