If Malaysia’s opposition parties want to reach Putrajaya, they must put forward to voters a real alternative platform of policy change that captures the public imagination, says Anil Netto.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has confounded sceptics, even in the so-called British liberal media, by putting up a strong showing in the UK general election.
Critics who had labelled him as “unelectable” and mocked him relentlessly now have to eat humble pie. Labour posted strong gains, increasing its share of the popular vote by 10 per cent to 40 per cent, just behind the Conservatives’ 42 per cent.
Although the Tories lead Labour by 318 to 261 seats, it is a hung Parliament, with no single party able to command a majority on its own in the 650-seat House of Commons. UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority – ironically in an election she called much earlier than she had to, in a bid to increase that majority – and they are now forced to stitch a coalition government with the Democratic Unionist Party, which clinched 10 seats.
Before the elections, Labour under Corbyn had trailed far behind in opinion polls, and few expected the party to do well given the hostile media barrage against him. Yet, Corbyn defied the odds and Labour put up a robust showing. Not bad for someone who was once a 100-1 outsider to take over the Labour party leadership.
A real alternative
How did Corbyn’s Labour do it? Chiefly by presenting a real alternative to the policies of the Conservatives. Labour focused on tackling wide income inequality in British society and reversing the neoliberal trend and the damage it has caused.
Support among voters, many of them long disillusioned by ‘New Labour’, which had moved to the right, and Conservatives, picked up after voters learned of eye-catching pledges in the Labour manifesto.
This shows the value of manifestos, provided they contain pledges that put forward a real alternative in terms of the economy and welfare. True, most voters don’t read party manifestos, but if the pledges resonate with public sentiment, then somehow snippets will seep through to voters.
This is something Malaysia’s opposition parties can learn from. It is not enough to focus on the 1MDB scandal, Felda mismanagement, rampant corruption and the abuse of power. Voters also want to know how different the opposition parties are going to be in their policies on healthcare, taxation, energy and housing. And will their economic and development policies be any different?
The title of the Labour manifesto itself perhaps captured the mood of many voters: For the Many, Not the Few, a reflection that the wealth of the UK was not being felt by the many but concentrated in the hands of a minority. The manifesto then fleshed out the theme of tackling inequality in society and reversing the neoliberal juggernaut.
The manifesto pledge to tax the wealthiest 5 per cent more (those earning more than £80,000 per year) earned tremendous support. Labour also vowed to raise corporate tax – the first time in 44 years – from 19 per cent to 26 per cent, which would still place Britain among the nations with the lowest tax rates in Europe. Both moves would generate £26bn in extra revenue.
This additional revenue would help to tackle the crisis in healthcare and welfare. Corbyn’s Labour vowed to pump £30bn into the National Health Service to cut waiting lists for patients and improve patient experience. Another £9bn per year would be added to the education budget while scrapping university fees would need a further £7bn.
Labour also pledged to renationalise or assume public control of the railway, energy, water and postal sectors.
The plan to renationalise the railways to regain public control drew support. The benefits from a privatised service – increased competition – were seen by some as an illusion as many railway trips, for instance, were only handled by a single company, creating in effect situations of private monopoly. Staff shortages and other problems associated with Southern Railway may have contributed to key Conservative losses along the routes served by the rail company.
These two pledges alone – to raise taxes on the wealthy and reverse the privatisation trend – were a direct assault on two key ingredients of the neoliberal agenda, which had previously seen tax cuts for the wealthy and an austerity drive in social spending. Indeed, the plan to renationalise the railways struck at the heart of the privatisation drive, which began with earnest under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The move to abolish zero-hours contracts – contracts in which an employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, a key feature of “flexibility” in the labour market – proved highly popular.
Labour also pledged to raise the minimum hourly wage from 7.50 pounds to 10 pounds, repeal the Trade Union Act and enforce all workers’ rights to trade union representation.
Other popular pledges included abolishing tuition fees for students, building one million homes with half of them for social rent, and expanding free childcare.
Speaking after retaining his Islington North seat with a thumping majority, Corbyn said: “People have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics, they’ve had quite enough of cuts in public expenditure, under-funding our health service, under-funding our schools, our education service, and not giving our young people the chance they deserve in our society.”
In congratulating Corbyn, US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders noted, “All over the world, people are rising up against austerity and massive levels of income and wealth inequality. People in the UK the US and elsewhere want governments that represent all the people, not just the 1 per cent.”
Lessons for Malaysia’s opposition parties
So what does all this mean for Malaysia’s opposition parties? Instead of focusing largely on slamming rampant corruption and abuse of power (both of which should be roundly criticised, of course), Malaysia’s opposition parties cannot afford to stop there.
They must come up with an easily understood and credible manifesto that presents a direct shift away from the neoliberal agenda. Their campaigns should be positive and provide a real alternative to the Barisan Nasional’s platform. It cannot be based on business or ‘development’ as usual.
Will the opposition parties for instance be bold enough to propose raising taxes for the wealthiest to fund a social security system that protects the weakest and most vulnerable – ie a really progressive taxation system? Will they pledge to take back control over privatised water companies? Will they vow to improve our good but underfunded public healthcare system instead of focusing on medical tourism?
Can they promise to increase university budgets and slash university student fees? Can they commit to building more genuinely affordable homes (below RM250,000) for social rent while curbing property speculation?
Corbyn’s message was crystal clear in the foreword to the Labour manifesto:
Every election is a choice. What makes this election different is that the choice is starker than ever before. You can choose more of the same: the rich getting richer, more children in poverty, our NHS failing and our schools and social care in crisis. Or you can vote for the party that has a plan to change all of this – The Labour Party.
Britain is the fifth richest country in the world. But that means little when many people don’t share in that wealth. Many feel the system is rigged against them. And this manifesto sets out exactly what can be done about it.
Corbyn’s policy pledges appealed to many, especially the young people, who turned out in droves, notes political scientist Azmil Tayeb.
No longer were voters uninterested in the electoral process, which previously had become a choice akin to choosing between Coke and Pepsi. The heightened interest in the Labour platform contributed to a turnout of around 69 per cent, the highest since a Labour landslide in 1997.
A Labour platform focusing on the people’s wellbeing may also have contributed to the collapse of the right wing UK Independence Party, which had previously capitalised on voters’ insecurities. UKIP’s share of the popular vote plunged by 11 per cent to hit almost rock bottom at 2 per cent.
A record number of women were elected to Parliament, some 30 per cent. In contrast, Malaysia has only 10.4 per cent women MPs, putting us at a lowly 157th spot in the world. The new UK Parliament will also have a record 51 ethnic minority MPs, making this the most diverse representation in British history.
Pakatan has to try and energise young voters and women through radical policies that will actually improve their quality of life.
Being persistent is key. “Corbyn has always been consistent in his beliefs, which shows that persistence pays off in the end,” says Azmil. This is “a lesson to waffling opportunistic populists found in many Pakatan politicians”.
So it is not just about whether Wan Azizah, Anwar or Mahathir should be the prime minister-in-waiting. If Malaysia’s opposition parties want to put up a better showing and reach Putrajaya, they must put forward a real alternative manifesto listing key policy changes.
Like Corbyn, opposition parties need to come up with perhaps 10 easy-to-understand pledges that strike at the heart of the voters’ sense of despondency and disillusionment. These can then be hammered home in ceramahs and via social media.
These pledges have to tackle the neoliberal trend head-on. Apart from being sick of corruption, Malaysian voters want real change, a real alternative. Not more of the same. If the dream of reaching Putrajaya is to be realised, the opposition’s policy platform has to capture the voters’ imagination.