Is there a Corbynism beyond McDonnell?

Economics for the Many, edited by John Mcdonnell. Verso, 2018.

People Get Ready!, by Christine Berry and Joe Guinan. OR Books, 2019.

When Jeremy Corbyn, a one hundred to one outsider, won the Labour Leadership contest in 2015, he faced a series of significant challenges: unifying Labour MPs who were overwhelmingly out of step with the trade unions and Labour members, opposing David Cameron’s victorious Conservative government, and planning for the upcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. But one of the more subtle challenges was how the Labour Left could build a coherent, socialist policy platform after decades as political outcasts. Where were the friendly think tanks, policy advisers and economists? Where were the journalists and researchers who could shape Corbyn’s policy agenda? Where were the ideas that could power the movement?

There was of course an intellectual heritage to draw on. Although small and often marginalised, the traditional ideas of Keynesianism didn’t disappear after the 1970s, and since the Financial Crash in 2008 there has been a resurgence in heterodox, ‘post-Crash’ economics. Ed Miliband, in his own way, made a small break with neoliberalism, offering greater state intervention and even price caps in certain sectors. This has served as the (often inadequate) foundation for the ecosystem of think tanks, academics, journalists and policy advisers which has started to emerge over the last four years, and particularly since the surprisingly successful 2017 General Election[1].

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Many of the essays in John McDonnell’s edited collection, Economics for the Many, have their roots in this emerging ecosystem. Compared to similar recent interventions, from the socially conservative Blue Labour to the Liberal Democrat’s Orange Book and the neo-Thatcherite Britannia Unchained, Economics for the Many is a remarkably wide ranging contribution covering everything from economics education to big data and fiscal responsibility. Nevertheless, the essays generally revolve around an idea which has become one of Corbynism’s central themes: the opposition between extractive, financialised neoliberalism and an economy which works for the many not the few. John McDonnell explicitly describes the former as neoliberalism, the idea that “markets are the best possible means to organise an economy, that wealth would automatically ‘trickle down’ from the top, and that impediments to corporate power – like regulation and trade unions – should be reduced to irrelevance”. McDonnell’s response this economic system is primarily a moral one, for him “the human costs of this economic failure are intolerable”. But there is also an analytic approach which draws on the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi, whose studies of the industrial revolution examined the ways in which the economy is embedded in social and cultural relations. McDonnell updates this for the 21st century, arguing that neoliberalism has “threatened the fabric of society” by sacrificing Britain’s social security system, hospitals and social care system in order to hand out “billions of pounds… in tax giveaways to corporations and the very richest in society”.

There is significant overlap between John McDonnell’s diagnoses and the picture of British capitalism pained by Joe Guinan and Christine Berry in People Get Ready![2]. What they call the ‘extractive economy’ is also  characterised by “concentrated private ownership, corporate dominance, the overweening might of London-based financial capital… [which] together form a powerful engine for the extraction of wealth and its distribution upwards”. This emphasis on the flow of money, wealth and resources upwards, gives it a different flavour to McDonnell’s searing morale critique. But more importantly, it sets up their focus on the ownership of capital as the fundamental economic question, one which guides their positive project to extend the “principles of popular sovereignty from the realm of politics into economics”.

As depictions of the various weaknesses of British capitalism, both accounts are surprisingly short on history. The dramatic events of the 2008 Great Financial Crash loom large. So too does Thatcher’s reshaping of the economy and financial services in the 1980s. But there is much less discussion of the complex entanglement of The City of London, the Treasury and the Bank of England. As Geoffrey Ingham pointed out in the 1980s, the City has always wielded immense power over economic decision-making, and this dates back to long before Thatcher’s Big Bang. Just as important is the fact that, while four decades of financialisation have definitely distorted investment decisions, Britain’s stagnant growth and productivity rates are not simply the result of having too many banks. A richer picture of the limits of British capitalism would, as the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andrew Haldane has argued, also include changing demographics, the slowing rate of technological discovery and the long tail of small, low-productivity firms. Given the intended audience of both these books, perhaps it’s not surprising that they focus their critique on neoliberalism and the ghost of Thatcher, concentrating on the juicy political conflict rather than dense historical narrative. But a deeper reckoning with the contours of British capitalism surely has some part to play.

Despite this, when they get round to discussing what should replace extractive neoliberalism, the intellectual energy and excitement is palpable, with long lists of ideas tumbling across the pages. Berry and Guinan describe the democratic economy as “already emerging all around us – a spontaneous response to social pain… Worker ownership, co-operatives, municipal enterprise, community land trusts, public banks, benefit corporations, social wealth funds”. Some of the policy suggestions in the individual chapters of Economics for the Many are equally exciting. Ann Pettifor presents a powerful case for a Green New Deal with extensive investment in high-tech, skilled, green jobs. Costas Lapavitsas makes a case for a system of national and regional public banks to boost investment (particularly outside of London). There are provocative contributions from Nick Srnicek and Francesca Bria about municipal ownership of data and the public control of giant digital platforms like Facebook and Google. Two chapters argue for cooperatives and public ownership as an alternative to shareholder capitalism, while another sets out the Cleveland/Preston model of local procurement.[3] But the Financial Times was right to point out that the various contributors do often contradict one another and that many of their suggestions are aspirations rather than clearly formulated policy proposals. Unlike the new right of the 1970s, the left hasn’t had decades to prepare the ground – and that’s often clear to see.

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This vision for a new democratic economy has become one of Corbynism’s central themes. And gradually, in publications like these as well as in a series of independent reports including Alternative Models of Ownership and Land for the Many, real, fleshed-out policies are starting to emerge. But, this flourishing of ideas about the future of the economy betrays the real weakness of Corbyn’s domestic agenda beyond McDonnell’s Shadow Treasury team.[4]

Where is Labour’s bold new vision for education? Schools and universities are at crisis point. There is huge loss of morale and skilled professionals are quitting at record rates. There is resistance from parents over too much testing and from teachers over deskilling and the loss of control over what they teach. But, Labour doesn’t seem to have any positive vision of a more democratic approach to teaching. The 2017 Manifesto had an admirable commitment to lifelong learning through a National Education Service. Angela Rayner, as Shadow Education Secretary, has been a strong opponent of cuts to school budgets and to early years provision. But, there have been no pledges to reverse the academisation programme, let alone put forward a blueprint for what modern, humane and democratic education might look like.

You could ask the same question about the arts and culture. Speaking at Glastonbury in 2017, Corbyn said that ‘In every child there is a poem, in every child there is a painting, in every child there is music’. But, Tom Watson’s Shadow Culture team have yet to put forward any serious proposals to reshape Britain’s elitist culture industry. Nor has Watson really engaged with the question of the Britain’s deeply unpopular media. In the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Report, it seemed that desperately needed reforms might be on the horizon. But, newspapers have now managed to shift focus onto the scandal of online ‘fake news’ and media reform has dropped off the agenda altogether. On drug policy and policing, Labour remain trapped in a desperate bid to appeal to the Tory-voting home counties. Their response to the recent spike in violent crime was to promise 10,000 new police officers, an offer which Boris Johnson promptly doubled. On questions of constitutional reform, Labour have also been depressingly quiet. This is despite the fairly wide recognition that Brexit has provoked a constitutional crisis and exacerbated long standing concerns about wasted votes, undue concentration of power in the executive and unresponsive government.

This lack of ideas is all the more depressing given the opportunities presented by the last few years. Since the 2016 referendum, Brexit has consumed all the energies of this faltering Conservative administration. There have been almost no serious policy proposals from the government in that time – something which MPs of all parties regularly complain about. Without much shadowing to do, this should have been the perfect opportunity for the Shadow Cabinet to develop a comprehensive series of policy platforms. Instead Corbynism seems to have been reduced, through the meat-grinder of Labour Party wrangling, to a narrow economism.

More worryingly, this narrow economism is not just a matter of vision and policy. It also appears in discussions of political strategy. In Grace Blakeley and Luke Raikes’s chapter from Economics for the Many, they discuss the need to devolve fiscal responsibility to local administrations, pointing out that the UK is the most regionally unequal country in Europe and also the one in which fiscal powers are most centralised. But, they make no mention of the fact that Britain’s local media is in free fall, with 245 local newspapers closed since 2005 and the number of regional journalists halved to around 6,500. Devolving power to local government, without any local media there to scrutinise it, means putting a lot of trust in the incorruptible good nature of local politicians.

This blindness to the world beyond the economy reappears in Berry and Guinan’s People Get Ready!, a primer on how Labour activists can prepare themselves for government. The centrepiece of their argument is their analysis of several historical examples of radical movements which were defeated, from the Labour governments of the 1960s and early 1970s, to the French socialists of the 1980s and Syriza in 2015. The common thread linking these different cases is that they were all defeated by capital flight, a currency run and economic crisis, which pushed them to reverse their radicalism and enact austerity. Although this diagnosis is useful, it is also remarkably narrow. What about the many other forms of attack to which a Corbyn government might be subjected? Continual assault by the media? A mass defection of Labour MPs the day after an election? The military coup that an unnamed, serving general threatened Corbyn with in 2015? What about the international dimension, in particular how would Donald Trump react to a socialist government in Britain? Apart from an incisive chapter on the challenges posed by the civil service[5], they seem strangely unmoved by these non-economic threats.

Those same limits colour their discussion of the Labour’s possible responses. If there’s capital flight, use helicopter money and capital controls (both of which have recently been ruled out by McDonnell) to build a ‘siege economy’. If people don’t know why they should support the transition to a democratic economy, have a clever policy which, like Right-to-Buy did for Thatcher, encapsulates your ideas and links people’s material interests to a new economic system. These are all interesting suggestions. But, Guinan and Berry  (along with much of the Corbyn movement), seem to have little interest in the broader dimensions of hegemony necessary to make them work. Right-to-Buy was originally proposed in the 1959 Labour manifesto. It only came to stand in for Thatcherism as a political ideology because it was presented through the media (and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers) in a very particular way. When Thatcher said ‘economics are the method: the object is to change the soul’, she was only being partially serious. She also depended heavily on Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency, and during the miners strike of 1984, she seconded her chief PR adviser, Tim Bell, later the founder of Bell Pottinger, to work for the National Coal Board setting the terms of the negotiations and coordinating their strategy.

This isn’t a call for a return to the politics of the spin-doctor, but, we do need a proper theory of ideology. Without it, we will struggle to build a coherent strategy or to interpret earlier experiments in radical government. We need it to make sense of the fact that people born under Blair tend to be even more right wing and authoritarian in their political views, than those born under Thatcher. More immediately, we also need it to explain many of Guinan and Berry’s historical cases. For example, they praise the Attlee government’s many achievements, particularly the way his administration embedded Keynesian economics so deeply into government circles that even the Tory governments of the 1950s and 1960s couldn’t change tack. But they don’t explain how he achieved that crucial victory. The closest we get is an old Fabian insight, later borrowed by Milton Friedman: “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.

These non-economic elements of hegemony are complex, but they are essential to any serious political strategy. Clever pieces of economic policy will only ever be one part of that. But Corbynism, as it currently stands, seems to have neither a vision for socialism beyond the workplace, nor a long term strategy for how to get there.

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It’s worth pausing to consider where this narrow economism comes from. Part of its recent appeal seems to come from the quest to appear ‘serious’ and ‘credible’, to look like ‘a party of government not a party of protest’. The desire to focus on the economy now that we are near to power is an understandable impulse. So too is the implicit critique of identity politics for focussing too much on issues of representation and culture. However, this has come at the cost of a broader reckoning with the world outside of the economic sphere.

There are also much deeper reasons why Corbyn seems to be trapped by economism[6]. As Ralph Miliband famously argued, historically Labour has been shaped by a particular way of thinking, by the ideology of labourism. There are many ways of characterising this legacy, but one of the most important is the influence of the trade unions, who founded the Labour Party and have largely funded it since then. Trade unions are not constrained to bread and butter politics and have often led the way on issues from nuclear disarmament to LGBT rights. But they have also been concerned to steer the party away from what are perceived as ‘minority concerns’ in order to concentrate on economic issues. The fact that the unions (and Unite in particular) were Corbyn’s only allies within the Labour Party when he won the leadership in 2015, has gifted them a particularly significant role over the last four years.

Another important aspect of labourism is the insulation of MPs from Labour members, an issue which resurfaced during the recent rows around open selections. Labour MPs have always maintained that they are elected by constituents and shouldn’t be accountable to local members, while Labour governments have repeatedly and explicitly ignored policy decisions made at conference (supposedly the sovereign body within the party). One of the principal effects of this has been that MPs are easily absorbed into the Westminster bubble, where the reigning dogma is still Bill Clinton’s 1992 slogan ‘it’s the economy stupid’.

Labourism is also characterised by a suspicion of anything which might seem overly theoretical. When Angela Rayner said ‘ideology never put food on my table’, she wasn’t just committing herself to a pragmatic approach to politics, but also echoing a long running suspicion of intellectualism. Unfortunately, this has ceded the discussion to the right, who feel much more comfortable discussing big concepts like freedom and human nature and who use them to attack the left. This is particularly true of the alt-right, whose social media fluency has drawn huge audiences for reactionary and essentialist depictions of gender identity and the ‘natural social order’. But Thatcher’s critique of the post-war consensus was also built on philosophical themes: the importance of freedom from regulation and the overbearing state, humans as individualistic consumers unattached to class or collective identity. Again, when Michael Gove reformed the national curriculum in 2014, he did so in explicitly ideological terms, emphasising the importance of knowledge, the classical cannon and patriotism. If we want to think seriously about the future of education, then we need to think about human nature and ask what kinds of people we want our schools to produce: entrepreneurs, employees, critical citizens, cultured aesthetes, socialists? Unfortunately, Labour has too often backed away from those discussions.

Underlying all of this is particular electoral strategy. Since the 1980s, much of the Labour movement has been terrified of being labeled as part of the ‘loony left’. Embedded in this media buzz word was the spectacle of ‘militant, Labour-run, inner-city councils’ where children were told that ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ was racist and that gay rights were human rights. In an infamous letter from 1987, Labour’s press secretary, Patricia Hewitt, summed up this attitude saying that the ‘”Loony Labour Left” is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners’. The assumption that working class people are naturally socially conservative persists to this day. You can see it in Labour’s attitude to migration under Blair, Brown and Miliband, as well as in recent debates around a Second Referendum. These assumptions lead to an electoral strategy where it is assumed that Labour can only win on the economy and will lose votes if they push too hard in other areas. This prioritisation also seems to have shaped Corbynism, with the party backsliding considerably on migration compared to Corbyn’s own platform in 2015.

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A recent event organised by The World Transformed, an off-shoot of Momentum which organises political education events, saw people piling into a church hall in south London for a ‘festival of ideas and debate on some of the most important issues of our time’. The headline panel discussion (and so far the only one to be available online) was on ‘Reshaping the economy: power, wealth and ownership’. Media reform, education and the hostile environment were relegated to the basement. A huge amount of work is needed if Corbynism is to have a distinctive vision for the kind of society we want to live in. The economy has a central place in that, but we need much broader ambitions. Socialism will never flourish in the workplace alone, anymore than it can flourish in one country alone. And if a culture war really is coming, then Corbynism will need to fight it on more than one front. Whether or not this can be remedied before the Tory Party adopts an anti-austerity message remains to be seen.

Footnotes

[1] A more detailed list of the leading intellectuals and organisations in the Corbyn movement is provided in Robin Blackburn’s article for the New Left Review, ‘The Corbyn Project’. It’s also worth noting that, in terms of resources, this rudimentary infrastructure compares pretty favourably with the think tanks that powered neoliberalism. As Berry and Guinan point out “The IEA started out with a “part-time staff of one” and a “cramped office scarcely able to accommodate a visitor”. At its peak in the 1980s, it employed 15 people. The Centre for Policy Studies made do with seven. At this time it had a budget of around £150,000. NEF and IPPR currently outgun this considerably in terms of people and resources: both currently have annual expenditures in excess of £3 million (although this funding comes with strings attached, and only a fraction is available for truly radical policy innovation, for which it is true that funding is harder to come by)” (People Get Ready, p. 172)

[2] In fact, this is a common theme in a whole host of new left publications from Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism to Paul Mason’s Meltdown.

[3] There are already several interesting assessments of Corbyn’s economic policy: from Barnaby Raine in n+1, from Robin Blackburn in the New Left Review, and from Martin O’Neil and Joe Guinan in Renewal.

[4] Foreign policy occupies a slightly different place within the Labour Party and has always represented the fundamental gap between party’s left and right wings. Corbyn’s approach to international questions has consistently outraged many of his MPs and offers a clear alternative to previous Labour leaders.

[5] Elements within the Civil Service’s opposition to Corbyn was made clear in the unprecedented recent leaks by senior civil servants to the Sunday Times. A wider discussion can be found in a recent exchange published in Tribune.

[6] In the 1950s and 1960s, a version of this critique was put forward by the New Left, particularly by writers like Raymond Williams, Ralph Miliband, William Norman and others affiliated with the New Left Review.

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