On economics, Liz Truss is as far apart from Jeremy Corbyn as you can imagine in British politics. But, like Corbyn in 2015, this plucky, Oxford-born, “straight-talking Yorkshirewoman” is the insurgent candidate, able to draw big crowds by appealing to her party’s members’ deepest instincts.
Truss and Corbyn
In 2015, Corbyn’s left field policy ideas, such as ‘people’s quantitative easing’, were slammed by leadership rival Yvette Cooper as unsound economics and “false promises”, yet Corbyn drew rapturous applause from the audience. Now, Truss’s plans to slash taxes during an inflationary crisis are criticised by Rishi Sunak’s campaign as fantasy economics. We know that Corbyn won the hearts of Labour members in that campaign, and polls are clear that Truss is doing the same now with Conservatives.
Just like Corbyn, Truss is more popular with party members than MPs. This popularity gap brought constant instability in the early Corbyn years, ultimately leading to another leadership election and his demise. This sort of internal strife and poor polling could hit the Conservatives if they too are similarly seen to abandon the ‘centre ground’.
But, it is oft forgotten because of Labour’s 2019 disaster, that Corbyn did unexpectedly well in 2017 against Theresa May. Just maybe, Truss’s radical offering could result in high reward, as it did for Corbyn in 2017; OR, more likely, result in electoral catastrophe just as it did for Labour in 2019. Perhaps, the political ‘rule’ that parties can only win from the centre is being broken?
Presenting radical policies as credible
Being able to present radical policies as credible, and shift the centre ground to ideological aims, is key to political success. Take David Cameron, whose agenda of austerity was indeed radical, but was skilfully presented as necessary, and even as fair. If Truss can present her economic plan as necessary for growth, it may be more popular than some commentators predict. Indeed, in the Red Wall, Truss polls better against Keir Starmer than Sunak does, though Starmer still leads against both. Labour would, I think, be wrong to be complacent about Truss.
As John McTernan – former Labour adviser – told the Financial Times:
“The nightmare for Labour is that Liz Truss spends more freely than Jeremy Corbyn could ever have dreamed while being seen by voters as economically dry as Margaret Thatcher”.
But unlike Corbyn, who stood by his Nirvana agenda, Truss has shapeshifted and built a strong ideological reputation. Whether you call that small-c conservative pragmatism, or the sort of careerism Corbyn refused to engage in, it makes it harder to predict what a Truss government will bring, and how to engage with one. The mooted emergency budget in September will be the first real indication of how far she will go.
Tax cuts, levelling up and the cost of living
Some commentators would argue that if Truss is to pursue meaningful growth, she cannot abandon levelling up. Tax cuts that are untargeted and designed to win a Conservative leadership election might achieve a spurt of growth but will also exacerbate current levels of inflation.
A long-term strategic investment programme in skills, infrastructure and place-based assets will boost productivity in every part of the country. It does not require power-hoarding in Number 10, but serious engagement with devolved administrations and mayors.
On the immediate cost-of-living crisis, Truss said that ‘handouts’ – that is to say, targeted support – are not the answer. But the Tony Blair Institute finds that her proposed reversal of the national insurance contribution rise will help the poorest tenth of households by an average of just 76p a month, while the richest households would be better off by £93 a month.
Radical promises risk electoral catastrophe
If Truss governs in line with her professed instincts, the Conservatives could see high rewards if they present it as necessary. But they risk electoral catastrophe if they are seen to give ‘handouts’ to the better off, and to business, while the rest battle the oncoming pain. A note of caution: it will not just be the very poorest who will see yet more spiralling bills, food costs, and a winter NHS crisis but swathes of hardworking people across the UK’s towns, cities and regions.
Radicalism can gain traction at a time of crisis. But Liz Truss’ radical promises will have to deliver a full fat boost to people’s pockets and the country will need to see radical growth. If she fails, the next election must be Starmer’s to win.
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