Monday 22 November 2021

Torynomics Vs Starmernomics

For a while now, the CBI annual conference has become a fixture for all political leaders. The Tory Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition make their pilgrimage to talk economic policy and blow smoke up the seated backsides. But because it is a self-regarding serious audience and one that receives extensive press and broadcast coverage, it is an occasion for setting out one's policy vision, saying nice things about their record, criticising their opponents, and affecting an ostentatious chumminess business. Today's audience with our industry captains offered a rarity: an opportunity for direct comparisons to be made between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer in a set piece outside of PMQs, and what they're going to do for British capitalism's profit margins.

Johnson's speech was excessively, heavy-handedly Johnson. And, naturally, it stole the headlines with even the Daily Express, that most sycophantic of Tory papers, calling it the worst speech ever. Losing his place for 20 seconds was excruciating. The brum brum car noises an oh so hilarious light touch, evoking Lenin a head scratcher, and the aside on Peppa Pig was ... overwrought. There were a few polite titters in the hall as he bumbled through his vapid speech. The praise for business for stepping up to the Covid plate for churning out the ventilators and vaccines (cough, cough, public money and universities) was forced, but probably massaged a few egos. But the rest was stuff we'd heard before. Naturally, there was silence where the reneging of northern rail promises. And apart from nice recollections of the roads travelled by the UK's green modernisation, it unlikely many CBI regulars were carried away by the Boris Johnson show this time.

The media chatter's concentration on the bumbling and Peppa Pig was followed up with the BBC asking Johnson if, effectively, his mental health was okay. Others of a more cynical bent were keen to point out how the performance was contrived to crowd out weightier headlines. Such as the Commons vote on the NHS bill off the agenda. I'm not buying it. The Tories in general and Johnson in particular are having difficulties, but even when there is nothing happening, the British press and broadcast media, apart from the couple of liberal broadsheets, don't give nuts-and-bolts NHS votes the due prominence they deserve, even ones as far reaching and as ruinous as this. Not everything is a dead cat. Knowing most of the public, and particularly Johnson (as opposed to Tory) voters will find their attention drawn by the theatrics over the detail, it's a way of re-establishing his clownish standing after a torrid couple of weeks. Silly old Boris screwing up and capering around in front of a VIP audience. What a card.

The Prime Minister wasn't the only one playing politics at the CBI. Opposed to popinjay populism was the cool and showy competence of technocratic managerialism, Keir Starmer-style. Trailed beforehand with the usual right wing framing of public spending (no blank cheques, fiscal discipline, no hand outs, no nationalisations), Starmer's actual speech was calibrated for a business audience. The jokes were lame (the Geoffrey Cox line) and cringe ("the only F words I'll be using are foreign investment, free trade, fiscal policy, and fiduciary duty"), but this was more substantial than Johnson's recycled offering. It went big on shared interests and pro-business, pro-worker talk (what used to be called "partnerships" in New Labour speak), and industrial policy. Johnson went for windy rhetoric, while Starmer was keen to show a grasp of detail. This might, for example, be the first time a leader's CBI speech touched on a veterinary agreement for agricultural products, but it affects a sense of someone across the economic brief. Also of interest was the repeated pledge for a revaluation of business rates, something the Tories are afraid of touching because layers of their existing petit bourgeois support are bound to lose out. Brexit was wheeled out as well, but only to assure the CBI Labour won't be risking instability and turbulence by reopening that particular wound.

Substantively, the audience were treated to an expansion on the pre-conference essay. Going hard on fiscal rules and making sure every pound spent can be accounted and explained opened the door to the Starmerist future: one in which the state is industrially active and building up the work force's skills capacity (interestingly, "critical thinking, creativity, communication, and the ability to work in a team" are singled out). There's the patriotic purchase option, in which public procurement privileges British firms, a reaffirmation of Rachel Reeves's green spending plans, which she has inherited almost wholesale from Rebecca Long-Bailey, and promises for sector-by-sector strategies and investment to match. The CBI, of course, have heard not dissimilar from the past two Labour leaders. Like them, Starmer is offering a view of a rounded development of British capitalism which ticks the boxes of full employment, and consequently new markets and new opportunities. The key difference is that for the blessed Ed Miliband, the horses were well and truly terrified by a sudden break with some of the tenets of the neoliberal settlement. Such as, for example, the predators versus the producers line, and the fact the Tories were more credible on the question of reinforcing class interests. Jeremy Corbyn went to the CBI on five occasions as the man who would save capitalism from itself, and pushed dozens of policies much friendlier to business than anything the Tories have and will ever come up with. The problem: these also would have affected the balance of class relations, and so off he was packed.

Starmer's speech combined the ritualistic flattery with a policy menu that completely sidesteps the issue of property ownership. The fudges over "common ownership" versus nationalising things isn't evidence of cowardice as such, but right wing lessons drawn from the previous three elections. I.e. Don't upset business. This is why another absence was the measure of economic democracy promised in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, and also favoured by Blue Labour. Starmer's Fabian state is a friend to business because it accepts their unquestioned supremacy in the economy, and their prioritisation in society at large. Starmerism is a friendly hand on the shoulder, a more understanding and approachable caretaker to their needs than the Tories by offering them incentives, inducements, and outright bribes. But it goes a step further by promising a stable policy and capital investment environment with an equally predictable and becalmed economy and labour market. This hand is not invisible, but it is eager to help.

Comparing the two, there's much more to recommend Starmer's pitch over Johnson's. Serious times call for serious solutions, after all. Labour's commitment to full employment might make the more hyper-conscious sections of British capital a bit sweaty, but Johnson's relaxed attitude to Britain's deep rooted economic problems, exacerbated now by Covid mismanagement and Brexit uncertainty, certainly has not been helpful where most businesses are concerned. Similarly, if it is mentioned at all in the media Starmer's plan is more congenial to centrist and centre right commentators and editorial offices. The mission, as it has been from day one, is to neutralise or dampen the threat coming from this quarter by making them unafraid of an incoming Labour government. If this means ditching commitments to expanding the collective power of workers, that's absolutely fine.

Yet the question remains. Starmer probably won the day fighting on his chosen ground of managerialism, but there are limits to this strategy. Labour does need to win over chunks of voters who previously supported the Tories at some point these last 10 years, but these are not enough if one is demobilising the inherited base. Putting out the message your party isn't in the game of reforming the fundamentals, particularly in the face of climate change, is not going to cut the mustard. It's not a case of trading in supermajorities in the cities for advances in the marginal seats for Labour's natural support is spread (albeit unevenly) everywhere. Gaining Tory voters while losing Labour voters is the price for "sensibility", but there's no guarantee the former will come. In trying to look "respectable" on the economy, the party could well be practising a false economy of its own.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Will it make any real difference to 'ordinary' people, or to the life chances of our children, in real terms if Keir/ Labour gets elected? At this point far from convinced. I have always been a past Labour Voter.

Mark said...

Everything Starmer does is to reassure the establishment their interests will be served. This was quite an accomplished speech in that sense. The real questions are who replaces Johnston when the Tory sharks finally attack and will the left still see Labour as the only non-Tory game in town come the next election.

A combination of someone even worse than Johnston (yes i think thats possible *cough*Raab*cough*) and a clear chance for the left to be rid of the Tories for 5 years, might, get Labour a majority of votes. However, even then Labour are not getting Scotland back and so may not be able to form a majority.

If Starmer were to win it would need a level of voter apathy I don't think will exist. Manageralism works when the public feels there is nothing to fight for, the left truly do have something to fight for and the rights entire strategy is to whip up a frenzy around the culture war to keep the hate that fueled Brexit flowing. People will feel change is needed and it is perfectly possible, another, new Tory leader would be able to ride that wave back into number 10, as Johnston did.

Starmers strategy is obviously based in the 1990's not the 2020's it'll be interesting to see how big that fails and how its blamed on Corbyn.

Shai Masot said...

I was right behind Keir up to the point when he said Sue Cook wasn't going to show up. Lost all interest after that.

Anonymous said...

Keir could win or rather the Tories could lose. Will it make a great deal of difference? I think very little, but Labour will likely have my reluctant vote.

I say reluctant because I would hope for more. Among western countries, we are one of the most unequal that has its consequences, individual, collective and economic. And yes of course we all know, the life chances of our children.

Blissex said...

«the Tories were more credible on the question of reinforcing class interests.»

This and the rest of the piece feel to me based on the assumption that the Conservatives represent the interests of a single, united class, the business class, but that seems to me typical of "noddy marxism". The Conservatives rather are the party of incumbents as a *loose* coalition, and different classes and subclasses are part of that coalition.

In particular Johnson's "F*ck business" quip was not random: the current Conservative party is not mainly the party of business, even if there is still a significant "business sponsored" minority, but the party of property and finance. The CBI has not been dominant in the UK economy or in the Conservative coalition for around a couple of decades, and in particular since 2010, with G. Osborne policy of “fiscally conservative but monetarily active [but only for property and finance]”.

While the CBI represents businesses as corporate persons, *business owners* (and usually business executives too) as natural persons have a mixed class interest, because by and large they are also property owners, and often their business ownership interests are the least of the two, for example A. Sugar made on property around 6-7 times more money than he did in business, and therefore this quote:

«Speaking about his first year in business with Lord Sugar, Mark Wright, the winner of last year’s Apprentice, said the Amstrad founder had given him tips on creating long-term wealth. “Lord Sugar said you make money from property and do business for fun. Many of our customers make money from property and I’d love to go into property development one day”»

«Johnson's relaxed attitude to Britain's deep rooted economic problems, exacerbated now by Covid mismanagement and Brexit uncertainty, certainly has not been helpful where most businesses are concerned.»

But not only businesses are no longer the dominant class interest in the Conservative coalition, for the property and finance interests there are no “deep rooted economic problems”, their economy has been booming for 40 yars, and the impact of COVID and Brexit has been this, and they are surely not complaining, "let's be practical":
Average UK house price rises by £25,000 in a year [...] The annual rate of price inflation hit 10.6% during the month, up from 8.5% in July

Sure the more business oriented people, those purged brutally by Johnson, the Conservative minority of Major, Heseltine, Clarke, are quite mad at Johnson, and so largely is the CBI (and Johnson's speech could have been just trolling the CBI by him), and they seem to be pushing hard against him in alliance with the New Labour neoliberals, through the media "influenced" by the "the [neoliberal/whig] Establishment".

But as long as Johnson delivers the goods as in “Average UK house price rises by £25,000 in a year” etc. his finance and property backers, from the top level "sponsors" in the City to the "aspirational" tory voters in the 3 bed semis in St. Albans, will continue to love him.

Note: taking a long term view, probably the CBI and business interests have never recovered from the accelerated destruction of much of "traditional" industries in the 25 years after 1982 in order to "amputate" and "cauterize" the trade union "infection" in those industries. That destruction also probably involved the rage of the english Establishment against "lazy, stupid, defeatist" business owners for letting the trade unions become too powerful and threatening the monopoly of power of the Establishment.

Andy White said...

Johnson 🤪 Starmer 🤮