Why letting ‘Jeremy be Jeremy’ might be a bad idea

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s an election on.

The Vicar’s daughter has maintained a relatively low profile since her surprise announcement, just a visit to a toothpaste factory and engaging Dudley householders in awkward conversations on their doorsteps while West Midlands mayoral candidate Andy Street hovers excitedly in the background.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn has been busier. After all, he’s got a raft of new policies to promote – drawn up just before the big announcement – and team JC has a ‘Let Corbyn be Corbyn’ strategy so he’s officially allowed to be himself.

This can make for compulsive viewing and I was up with the political nerds to catch him on Marr the other Sunday morning. He didn’t disappoint.

In a wide-ranging interview we learned that Jeremy is relatively unperturbed by the pressures of the highest office in the land. In fact, he seems carefree and relaxed – however, this might be because he knows full well he’ll never be Prime Minister.

An example came when JC was asked by Andrew Marr about that first horrible task as PM, when the man from the Admiralty taps you on the shoulder and you have to write those letters to submarine commanders patrolling the North Atlantic outlining what they should do if the UK has been wiped out by a nuclear strike.

Those Letters of Last Resort are a chilling reminder of the responsibilities of a British leader. Effectively, you are a voice from beyond the grave, instructing commanders whether to fire back killing millions more or surrender to whatever is left of the world.

So what would Jeremy write in his doomsday note? 

The response wasn’t so much an answer as a breezy ramble that managed to cast doubt over agreed party policy before moving on to a half-hearted analysis of the underlying causes of geopolitical tensions in Korea and Syria.

He appeared to suggest that rather than a simple, ‘fire all weapons/meekly surrender’ letter he’d seek to engage the officials in a conversation about how political solutions were always the answer.

I’m sure at one point, when pressed, he said the commanders would just have to follow orders – obviously not fully realising that it would be he who would be giving them.

It’s more evidence that Corbyn is almost touchingly incapable of the binary answers that are demanded in modern politics. The trouble is that letting Jeremy be Jeremy is what makes him spectacularly vulnerable on questions of leadership.

I didn’t think the Marr interview was a complete disaster – certainly not deserving of the Daily Mail’s description as a ‘car crash’ – he performed relatively well on the domestic front.

After being widely mocked for suggesting four extra bank holidays, he came back well – arguing effectively that consumer spending on national days off probably outweighs any loss to the economy.

He could also have argued that other countries with more public holidays – for example France and Germany – far outpace the UK in terms of productivity. When it comes to increasing our economic output, the secret is to work smarter, not harder.

But, like several of his shadow cabinet colleagues, Corbyn doesn’t appear to be briefed enough to be able to make ‘killer points’ or change the direction of interviews.

The basics are there, but there’s no policy detail below the surface. It gives the impression of a man who just isn’t serious about high office, something that can be exploited ruthlessly by political opponents. 

Inequality is falling (slightly) but that’s a huge problem for the Left

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer – a favourite phrase of anyone who wants to criticise market economics. A simple message, appealing to our sense of fairness and injustice. It should be the raison d’etre of the left.

But, as you’ll probably have guessed, it’s not quite simple as that. In fact, it’s incredibly complex.

One way of measuring inequality is by something called the Gini Coefficient, it sounds like a household robot from a 1960s TV show set in the future, but it’s actually the measure that economists use to work out the distribution of income – or in fact anything – across a society.

Now I’m not going to get involved in whether the Gini Coefficient is the best measure, it is not the only way to gauge relative wealth, but it appears to be the most widely used.

Gini 1961-2014-15

A quick look at the graph above – courtesy of the Equality Trust – gives us the broad picture. The co-efficient was relatively low during the swinging sixties, it fell lower during the economically troubled 1970s and then, around the mid 1980s, it rocketed.

Britain wasn’t the only place in which it shot up, and economists argue over the causes. In the UK’s case it seems likely it was at least partly due the Thatcher Government’s successive income tax reductions plus a touch of laissez faire economics meaning thousands more people got seriously rich.

However, after reaching its peak in the early 1990s, the Gini rises more slowly, reduces slightly in the wake of the 1992 recession and then fluctuates during the Blair years.

But then, here’s the really surprising thing, as we go past the 2008 banking crisis, income inequality actually starts to reduce, taking us back to levels last seen in the late 1980s.

This happened because the great recession resulted in rich people getting slightly less rich while poorer people are taken out of income tax thanks to one of the Coalition government’s more enlightened pieces of fiscal reform.

And that’s the problem for the left, inequality – by established measures – is actually falling, not by much, but still going in what most progressives would say is the right direction.

There’s no guarantee this will continue, there’s some evidence that the top strata of the rich are beginning to pull away from the rest of us while at the same time average incomes will stagnate until at least 2020. In fact, many of the changes to benefits – which affect millions of working families – haven’t been felt fully yet.

But for the moment, the Left has big problem. As the centre right argues, why does inequality that matter as long as the poor’s incomes continue to grow while those at the top of the pile pay their share in tax? Everyone gets richer, everyone benefits.

And if the gap is decreasing anyway under a Conservative Government, where does the Left’s traditional redistribution argument go?

Do you argue that you want to reduce it further and faster? That soon leads you into politically tricky territory, recently Jeremy Corbyn suggested capping the incomes of some unspecified high earners, and it didn’t play well.

Plus the baby boomers who remember the golden age of income equality will be in their mid to late seventies by 2020, that means a good chunk of the electorate won’t remember a time when incomes were more equal.

It’s hard to land blows with inequality unless people feel that it’s getting really bad or you cherry pick some extreme examples – Philip Green and his yacht for example.

Saying things are getting worse is a staple of opposition politics, but in the case of inequality, at the moment it’s simply not true.