The difference between the left and the right is that the left wants to change the electorate whist the right wants to change the workforce.
This thought struck me whilst reading this. Among the cliché-mongering, Marian Tupy says:
millions of Britons will need to be retrained and their movement between different jobs facilitated by 21st century education and welfare systems.
This, of course, is part of a long tradition on the centre and right. Thatcher wanted to make workers more submissive – an aim she achieved if not in the way she intended. And a large part of the New Labour project consisted in what Stuart Hall called (pdf):
adapting society to the global economy's needs, tutoring its citizens to be self-sufficient and self-reliant in order to compete more successfully in the global marketplace.
Blair’s emphasis on “education, education, education” was an attempt to make workers fit for the perceived needs of capitalism. To him, “modernity” meant modernizing people. As he and Gerhard Schroeder wrote (pdf):
The most important task of modernisation is to invest in human capital: to make the individual and businesses fit for the knowledge-based economy of the future.
It’s easy to sneer at Corbynistas as demanding “no compromise with the electorate”. But neoliberals, with their incessant demands down the years for labour market "flexibility", want no compromise with the workforce. Both, in their different ways, want to achieve the same thing: to change people.
Which poses the question: why should it be a sensible idea to change the workforce but a daft one to change the electorate? Several possible answers seem to me to be dubious, for example:
“The workforce is in fact malleable but the electorate isn’t.”
Certainly, the workforce has changed over time; there are twice as many graduates now as in the early 90s. But so too has the electorate: for example, fewer voters want increases in public spending or unemployment benefits now than in the 90s, and tolerance of homosexuality has increased. (It’s unclear whether attitudes to immigration have changed).
“The workforce wants to become more skilled, but people don’t want to change their political views.”
This isn’t obvious. Of course, many do want to go to university and get better training. But on the other hand, tens of thousands of teenagers are bored at school and want to leave as soon as possible.
“We know how to change workers but not how to change voters’ minds.”
Surely not. For one thing, attempts to improve technical education in the UK have failed for decades. And if voters’ minds are fixed, then the millions spent on spin doctors and campaigns is wasted. One lesson of behavioural science, surely, is that people are persuadable.
“The payoff to changing the workforce is greater than that to changing the electorate.”
This of course depends upon how happy you are with the present state of public opinion – though surely even centrist critics of Corbyn must share his disquiet with anti-immigration sentiments. But it’s not clear that upskilling the workforce will have great benefits, given that it’s quite possible that technical change will destroy skilled jobs in future. The notion that we can predict the future skill needs of the economy seems to me to be absurdly hubristic – but then, we Marxists have learned Hayek’s lesson about the limits of what can be known more than have the centre and right.
My point here is simple. The centre-right should not sneer at the Corbynistas' desire to change public opinion over the long-term, because this project has much in common with their aim to transform the workforce. But they will sneer, because tribalism trumps intellectual consistency.