Breakingviews - UK election makes Halloween ghouls of capitalists

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a launch event for the Labour party's general election campaign in London, Britain October 31, 2019.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain’s winter election has unleashed a new Halloween ghoul: capitalists. Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the opposition Labour party, on Thursday kicked off his campaign with an unusually personal philippic against the likes of retailer Mike Ashley and hedge fund manager Crispin Odey. Britain’s capitalists should brace for a hostile December poll.

Corbyn’s disdain for plutocrats is well known. Still, the personalised attack marked an escalation. He pledged to take on “bad bosses” like Ashley, founder of Sports Direct, “dodgy landlords” like the Duke of Westminster, “greedy bankers” such as Odey, and “big polluters”, citing Jim Ratcliffe, founder of refiner Ineos.

Though Corbyn’s bogeymen appear to have little in common, his focus on unfairness and inequality may be a vote-winner. UK wages, adjusted for inflation, are still below their 2008 level, according to the Office for National Statistics. The United Kingdom spends just 41% of gross domestic product on public services, some 8 percentage points below the European average, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Nevertheless, demagoguery carries risks. Labour has endorsed radical policies like seizing property from landlords and forcibly transferring shares in private companies to workers, alongside more sensible ideas such as investing in public services and nationalising water utilities. A more moderate Corbyn might win support from British voters who have become sceptical of the benefits of unfettered free markets. A broader attack on capitalists may scare them off.

Corbyn has little choice, though. Boris Johnson’s Conservative party is using the promise of a deal to leave the European Union to appeal to working-class but Brexit-supporting voters. Yet Labour’s supporters straddle those who want to stay in the EU, and those who want to leave. A radical anti-capitalist message helps Corbyn steer the debate away from Brexit.

Moreover, while the Conservatives may criticise Corbyn’s policies, it has little to gain by publicly defending bad bosses. As the election draws near, capitalism will struggle to rip off the mask of Britain’s least favourite bogeyman.


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