Monday 28 September 2015

On John McDonnell's Shadow Chancellor's Speech

There is a tendency by lobby hacks to treat John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn as Austen-authored debutantes facing their first showing in Society. Not yet worldly wise, they require deft chaperoning to sidestep the depredations of the rakish and dastardly Mr Osborne. Their present situation demands careful schooling to avoid unknowing breaches of etiquette, such as not rendering the wealthy-but-distant Uncle Rupert the requisite respect. And at all times, attention has to be paid to one's countenance to avoid panicking the horses tethered in the Middle England stables. Alas, the real naifs of the piece are our media friends. Jez and John are not wide-eyed innocents with little feel for the world. It might only be now they're leading the ball, but for decades, in the political backrooms and kitchens they have mixed with the people "below stairs", and looked on. Their familiarity with the airs and the graces cannot match those of the princelings, but they have something else: decades of experience in the rough and tumble of Labour left and labour movement politics. They know the game well, but from a different perspective. This alien land, however, is invisible to the press pack, and explains why so many of them were caught on the hop by John's shadow chancellor's speech at Labour Party conference earlier today. Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?

Their surprise says a great deal about their pitiful quality and shallow social roots. On the other hand, it suggests good things where our new leadership's political nous is concerned. As we know, Jeremy's opponents have a history of underestimating him, but even they should realise by now that Jez and John are neither stupid or naive. The way to really grab attention is to confound expectations, and this is what today's speech did. We noted the other day that Labour still has a mountain to climb when it comes to perceptions of economic competence. It's all about the economy or, rather, the sense of self-security - a point the Tories have long cottoned-on to. And, pleasingly, the speech set out a strategy that could wrest "credibility" from George Osborne's incompetent stewardship.

The likes of Thomas Piketty and Ann Pettifor are hardly household names, but for people looking askance at the Labour Party during conference would have heard the phrases 'leading economic thinkers' and 'specialist knowledge', and how the party plans to draw on them to develop policy. They may also have picked up on John's 'test, test, and test again' mantra before any idea makes it through to policy. And he makes the not unreasonable demand, following Ed Balls, that Labour be given access to the OBR, Bank of England, and Treasury wonks to test the feasibility of policy ideas. Osborne and Dave, of course, are not going to allow that to happen because the sorts of policies the panel favour are hardly likely to break capitalism. It could, in fact, give it a boost.

Similarly with the second part of John's big reveal. Labour is pledged to live "within our means". Yes, in the context of the relationship between the state and the economy this is a nonsense. Unfortunately, because many of these arguments were given a free pass by the 2010 Labour leadership contest and the early days of Ed Miliband, the Tories audaciously but successfully linked the global economic crash to non-existent public spending profligacy on the part of the last Labour government. There appears to be some confusion whether John will endorse Osborne's commitment to turn in a government surplus, albeit by other means, but either way some of the fog of policy war has been lifted. John is seeking to annex economic efficiency for the left, and is doing so by accepting Osborne's premise to use it as a stick to beat him with. Forget what you've so far read about Osborne, he might be "intensely political" but a genius he is not. The budget surplus was a trap for Labour's ancien regime, and designed to bring out the contradictions of its formal anti-austerity but actually austerity-lite programme. Instead of casting aspersions on the Tories' miserable mishandling of the deficit and debt, as well as fingers-crossed-and-hope-for-the-best approach to Britain;'s economy, John is threatening to turn the tables and hold the Conservatives feet to a fire of their own making. A lot of things can happen in five years, but eliminating the deficit and turning in a surplus on the basis of idiotic cuts to government spending in unlikely to be one of them.

Labour have got to play the long game, but rather than offering smoke and mirrors John has clearly set out a direction of travel and a plan to hold the Tories' economic record to account. It's the approach Ed Balls toyed with when he ran for leader, and promptly abandoned upon assuming the shadow chancellor's office. That won't happen this time. And, you know what, it might just work.


Chris said...

I thought it was an excellent speech. Austerity is a political choice - yes, let's keep reminding people of that.

Calling for the OBR to scrutinise Labour policy and assembling a high quality panel of advisers are smart moves. I was hoping Jeremy and John would have the sense to turn to people like that for advice and now I have no doubt that we will come up with strong economic policies. The message will be a good one, hopefully we can get it across to the voters.

treborc said...

That is the secret getting it across to the people , because without them labour will not improve much no matter who is in power the left the right or the imagined so called hard left.

At the moment I think just getting the party settled into opposition would be nice and then to grow the battle lines, because now the Tories can see that Corbyn is not going to be an easy touch.

Gary Elsby said...

For entertain.....information purposes only, perhaps you should link Prince Trissy's hissy fit in a fringe as John made his speech.
Oh dear (CH4 John Snow).
He doesn't get it.

The national debt (£950Bn Gordon Brown) is standing at around £1700Bn under George Osborne.
The deficit (income vs expenditure) has dropped (11% Gordon Brown) to 6% under George Osborne.

George Osborne will be quite correct to say that he isn't producing 'austerity' budgets, far from it, but is austere on the deficit and interest payments servicing that debt.

A Nation that doubles its debt but reduces the deficit to zero or plus
Is a nation that is growing economically and financially.
A Tory is a Tory and George will crow about his good husbandry and sets up a good stall for becoming PM.

The key to Labour's success is to challenge the idea of a surplus beyond zero ("A political choice") of the deficit and to demand explanations of a rise to around 90% of national debts.
Most successful Western countries sit at around 40%.

Speeches taxing Google to a converted baying crowd is but a small piece of the problem cake. An increasing working population producing exports is 2/3 of problem solved.

Vote Jeremy:)

Anonymous said...

How wonderful is it to see Labour leaders engaging in genuine political battle.

Just think how different the speeches would have been if your Neo-liberal candidate had managed to win!

However, John McDonnell may not be saying it but the short term project has nothing much to do with socialism but with making capitalism work better and fairer (which is always a short term project!).

You can't build a socialist project while ever the Sun and the Mail are the most read newspapers. Indicators like that speak more than a thousand meta theories from 'cultural Marxists'.

The economic debate is desperately needed. It is a quite astonishing indication of how embedded the Neo-liberal ideology is that there has been virtually no debate about the role of banks in the economy (other than very superficial noises about what bad boys they have been). Nationalisation of the banks should be seriously debated.

The New Labour period, exemplified by the likes of Yvette Cooper was a prolonged period of Neo-Liberal indoctrination (that we may never recover from). That and millions dead and displaced are their only long term achievements as far as I can see (I think the Netherlands were the first country to bring same sex marriage into law).

Corbyn and McDonnell are saying this period of indoctrination is now being brought to an end and the work starts to undo the damage.

A modest task but an absolutely essential one.