It's Time to Nationalise Billionaires

For some reason everyone wants to defend the rich from the Labour Party, but Jeremy Corbyn should go further.
November 6, 2019, 9:07am
Nationalise billionaires
Superyacht 'Global' moored on the River Thames, (Chris Harris / Alamy Stock Photo)

New Labour were, in the words of Peter Mandelson, "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". He did add "as long as they pay their taxes" – but even so, the line helped cement a sense that Labour under Blair were only willing to pursue policies to help the worst-off if those policies could be made to seem acceptable to their well-off friends.

This is no longer the case. Nowadays, Labour have a leader who is primarily defined by his willingness to call out the cruelty and spite of the most fortunate people in our society. Fittingly, Jeremy Corbyn launched his second attempt to become Prime Minister with a speech singling out five members of the "super-rich" a Labour government would clamp down on.


These included the hugely popular owner of Newcastle United and notably good and fair employer Mike Ashley of Sports Direct; the 28-year-old hereditary billionaire private landlord and 7th Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor; and chill fracking dude Jim Ratcliffe. Labour's clamping-down will most likely involve banning zero-hours contracts, pursuing a target of net zero carbon emissions by the early 2030s and building affordable housing.

Naturally, this reformist agenda has prompted some pushback. Almost simultaneously alongside Corbyn's speech, the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, gave an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live in which he shocked presenter Emma Barnett by suggesting that he didn't think anyone in the UK should be a billionaire. Barnett responded to this declaration almost as if it was a sort of stunning gaffe, huffing and puffing and insisting that "some people aspire to be billionaires… is that a dirty thing?"

Meanwhile, Ashley has hit back at Corbyn by calling him "not only a liar but clueless". Tony Blair, whose popularity ranks somewhere in the same stratosphere as Ashley's, has claimed Corbyn's rhetoric against tax-dodging billionaires and bad landlords is every bit as hateful as Donald Trump's right-wing populism. Golfers and Championship footballers have been uniting against Labour. People who educate their kids at Eton are planning to leave the country in anticipation of Corbyn's government abolishing private schools.


In short, if Labour really do want to fight this election on a sort of populist, anti-rich platform, it's going pretty well.

I suppose some people are going to think that attacking the rich is a bad idea for Labour because it looks like "punishing aspiration". But the aspiration to "become a billionaire" is a lot different from the aspiration to, say, become your own boss, or own your own house. The powers-that-be might like us to think of these things as being on a sort of spectrum: available to anyone, perhaps, with the right drive, who makes opportunities for themselves and works hard. But they're simply not: for one thing, no one becomes a billionaire by working hard – as we are constantly reminded by various viral posts, which compare how long it would take someone working on minimum wage, or similar, to accrue wealth equivalent to that of Jeff Bezos.

Wealth under capitalism is not accrued by magic. It is accrued by paying other people to work for you, at a rate slightly under that work's real value. In this sense, the wealth of the super-rich really doesn't belong to them: it belongs to the public – their current, past and future employees.

While many members of the super-rich like to style themselves as great philanthropists, the mere existence of their wealth, in private hands, restricts opportunity for others. If someone makes their fortune by renting out privately-owned housing, these are all houses that other people can't own. The money that this person's tenants pay in rent each month is money they can't save towards the deposit on a mortgage.

If anything, Labour's proposals don't go far enough. After all, Corbyn's campaign launch speech was primarily concerned with singling out certain members of a corrupt elite: "tax dodgers… dodgy landlords… bad bosses… big polluters". The target was thus not wealth as such – just certain people, who either make their wealth by doing bad things or use their wealth to secure bad ends (in this sense, Corbyn has yet to depart all that radically from "as long as they pay their taxes").

While Labour are currently discussing redistributive policies that would have seemed unimaginably ambitious a few years ago, their agenda remains basically quite reformist: a matter of incentivising the rich to use their wealth better, while correcting the worst of their excesses.

When it comes to the super-rich, Labour needs to start being a lot less cautious. Left-wing politicians need to start thinking of the wealth of the super-rich in terms analogous to those of, say, the railways: an asset, which is rightfully public, and should work for everyone, but has been illegitimately privatised, and so doesn't. If this asset were to be brought into state hands, it could be run properly again – a sovereign wealth fund (like the over $1 trillion fund Norway owns, for example), could be used to fund public services.

Super-rich individuals are a luxury no functioning society can afford. It's time to nationalise the billionaires.