Jeremy Corbyn has been getting a lot of stick recently, much of it justified: he seems to be the Henry VI of our time – obsessed with his own piety to the neglect of day-to-day politics despite massive and obvious dangers. Nevertheless, he made a very good and important point yesterday (2’24” in) when he said that the economic debate should be about inequality.
I say this because of Tim Harford’s essay in which he points out that facts just don’t matter in political debate.
This means that arguing against (say) the claim that immigrants take jobs is futile. Our arguments might be correct, but they simply bolster the belief that immigration is a problem. I fear the same thing happens when the left “calls out” the racism and misogyny of twats like Hopkins and Milo. Doing so merely increases their public profile.
Also, debating immigration is like a game of infinite whack-a-mole. When we knock down one argument – jobs (pdf), wages, public services, whatever – another jumps up. As Tim says, lies “summon to mind all sorts of other anxieties”. We’ll never defeat them.
In this context, the impartiality to which the BBC rather feebly aspires is impossible: an “impartial” debate about immigration serves the cause of lying racists. As Ed Glaeser and Cass Sunstein said, balanced news produces unbalanced views.
The answer to this is to do exactly what Mr Corbyn says - to change the subject. We should shift the agenda away from immigration towards inequality and stagnation. Doing so would have a two-fold benefit. It would raise the salience of inequality and capitalist failure and so – at the margin – help change voters’ priors from “migrants are to blame” to “bosses are to blame”*. This would mean the left’s opponents will be fighting on our ground, and so the backfire effect will work in our favour.
It would also change the dramatis personae. Rightist rentagobs have nothing much to say about issues such as inequality and stagnation, so changing the subject will silence them: the more we hear about Sam Bowles and less we hear about Farage, the better.
I suspect this point broadens. For example, my Twitter timeline has given me a very vivid image of what feminists think of Milo, but little idea of who is doing good scientific work on gender inequality. I think that’s a shame.
Such a shift has the tertiary virtue of having an evidence base – though I concede that few care about this. The stagnation of real incomes has more to do with austerity, the financial crisis, the decline of trades unions, financialization (pdf) and power than it has with globalization (pdf).
What I’d like to see the left do, therefore, is to do something which we don't do enough of (and I'm as guilty as anyone): we should pay less attention to the worst of the right and give more publicity to the best of the left.
* Strictly speaking, it is capitalism that’s the problem not individual bosses. But emergence is a tricky thing to sell to the media, so it’s tactically better to personalize the issue.