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31 May 2017

Why does the right find politics easier than the left? Because selfishness is viral

Get screwed, and you’re more likely to want to screw the next guy down the line.

By Jonn Elledge

There are many reasons why the left is doomed forever to play politics on a higher difficulty setting than the right. Entrenched class privilege – that’s one. The importance of money when running campaigns, and the tendency of those who have it to like lower taxes, is pretty obviously another. Then there’s the question of media ownership, and let’s not even get started on that.

But there’s another reason the right have an easier time of it in politics – one which, perhaps because human nature makes a less satisfying villain than Rupert Murdoch, we’re less likely to think to discuss. But it is, nonetheless, true, so let’s talk about it now. It’s this:

Selfishness is viral. If you get screwed, that makes you more likely to want to screw the next guy down the line.

To see what I mean, consider the demon-plagued hellmouth that is the British pensions system. Once upon a time, most jobs came with a pension – but it was widely accepted that public sector ones would be relatively more generous than private sector ones. This made some sort of sense, since pensions are effectively a chunk of salary which you defer to guarantee a comfortable old age: public sector workers are paid less now, the thinking went, in exchange for something more later.

But then in the 90s two things happened. Firstly, the private sector pensions system collapsed: many jobs went from final salary pensions, to career average ones, to no pension at all. Around the same time, the Blair government began increasing the salaries of public sector workers, to make up for years of Tory neglect. Suddenly, that unspoken compact was broken: public sector pensions were getting better, just at the point private sector workers were being screwed.

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How did the electorate respond? Did they demand action to sort out the failing private pension system? Well, yes, some probably did – but they were a lot less audible than the endless stream of columns and reader comments demanding the government stop pissing money away on paying its workers’ pensions. “We’ve been stiffed”, the thinking seem to go, “so now we want that lot to get stiffed, too.”

There’s a similar dynamic at work in housing policy these days, where the increasingly eye-watering cost of private sector rents has coincided with a fall in support for subsidised social housing. There’s a similar sort of reasoning behind it, too. Council housing, like public pensions, is subsidised by the taxpayer. It’s difficult to ask people to pay for others to have something they can’t afford for themselves.

The problem is, we obviously do need those things. If we want London to have nurses and teachers and cleaners, we need to ensure they can afford to live in London. If we believe in retirement, we need to ensure everyone gets a decent pension.

So why is the debate always about levelling down, not about levelling up? Because once you’ve been screwed, you’re less likely to feel generous towards people you’ll never meet. Because selfishness is viral.

What the solution to this is, I’m not sure. I suspect it’s something to do with reviving the old-fashioned notion of solidarity, but if I knew how to do that, I’d probably be charging the Labour party huge consultancy fees rather than spewing guff onto the internet in 700 word bursts. (My god. The virus has infected me, too.)

But it does mean that politics is a lot easier for the right than for the left. When a left-wing government screws something up, voters may blame it, then jump to the right. When a right-wing government screws up, voters may blame it – but still, they’ll jump to the right, just the same. A left wing government needs its policies to work all the time. A right wing one barely needs its policies to work at all.

A hard Brexit is very likely to hurt. The economy will tank; living standards will fall. But even though this mess was created by the right, don’t expect the left to benefit from the fall out: a fall in living standards will very likely make the electorate more selfish in their politics, blaming foreigners or enemies within for our woes. The end result of Theresa May’s failure may be to make Britain more right wing still.