Against Corbyn’s protectionism, will anyone stand up for free trade?

Scott Turner-Smith

July 28, 2018

While John McDonnell spent this week outlining his plans to occupy the Chancellor’s residence in Downing Street, and Diane Abbott hysterically told Labour supporters they would see her as Home Secretary, Jeremy Corbyn gave an altogether more chilling speech.

Speaking in Birmingham, the Labour leader decried the use of “cheap labour abroad to produce imports, while we focus on the City of London and the financial sector.” He used shipbuilding and the absurd bust-up over French-made passports as examples of this perceived betrayal. To Corbyn, Britain has been sold-off and workers ripped-off. Protectionism, for him, is the apparent solution to the UK’s problems.

His commitment to these principles provides an ample opportunity for the Government to make the pro-free market case that has been abandoned over the last few decades. Ministers could – and should – do so by making the positive case for free-market capitalism and provide clear examples of the impact of free trade policies.

For example, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by 80 per cent from 1970 to 2006. The percentage of people living on a dollar a day or less also dramatically fell by 80 per cent from 1970 to 2006. Similarly, the decline of the global poverty rate from 53 per cent to 17 per cent within a time frame of 30 years is the most rapid reduction of poverty in world history.

People have never been richer or healthier than they are in 2018. Girls, even in the world’s poorest countries, are more likely to go to school and stay there than ever before. At no point in history could we have reasonably expected to live as long as we do now. For example, data collected by the World Health Organization indicates that mortality rates for children under the age of five declined by 49 per cent from 1990 to 2013. These are neither opinions nor statements intended to provoke debate: they are incontrovertible facts. This success is largely down to the rise and expansion of free-market capitalism.

This is, however, not to say that everything is rosy in the global economy. The UK, for example, has experienced sluggish productivity that has had knock-on effects such as stagnant wages and decreasing disposable incomes. 

But this analysis is not news. Both parties accept the existence of problems within the UK economy. The dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives clearly lies in the required remedy.

For Jeremy Corbyn, the answer lies in rebuilding a strong British manufacturing base. The options include reducing the cost of UK labour, placing tariffs on imports, or to subsidise – perhaps even fully funding – uncompetitive industries.

Corbyn’s fondness for public ownership and his rhetoric about “protecting” jobs conjure images of pre-Thatcherite Britain. Just a few years ago, a return to this state of affairs would have been unthinkable. With Jeremy Corbyn knocking on the door of Number 10, the Conservatives must re-fight these battles and, crucially, win.

But what Corbyn and his acolytes fail to understand – remarkably, for self-proclaimed internationalists – is that trade is not a zero-sum game in which the benefits are only experienced in one country.

The current position of the Labour Party, therefore, simply makes the Prime Minister’s tendency to rubbish business and economic liberalism horrifically misguided. In the face of whole scale nationalisation and sky-high taxation, anything approaching interventionism from the Conservatives is bound to appear a pale imitation – and an acknowledgement that what Corbyn seeks to do is not all wrong. What’s more, the solutions to many of our domestic problems – high energy prices, the housing crisis, to name but two – actually require more competition and exposure to market forces, not less. 

The opportunity for Conservatives, therefore, is great. It was under Margaret Thatcher that the United Kingdom institutionalised its commitment to global free trade, but the case against Corbyn must go further than invocations of history – and it must not simply be about him or his ideology, it must actively focus on the benefits of freedom.

If the Conservative Party can espouse and implement a vision of a modern Britain: encouraging of entrepreneurship, open to the world’s investors and bringing down trade barriers, Jeremy Corbyn’s tired protectionism will be exposed as the illiterate folly it represents.


Written by Scott Turner-Smith

Scott Turner-Smith is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and Co-chair of Leeds City Conservative Forum.


Capitalism and freedom are under attack. If you support 1828’s work, help us champion freedom by donating here.

Keep Reading



Sign up today to receive exclusive insights