As the May government continues to lose credibility over Brexit, mainstream attention has unsurprisingly shifted towards the prospect of the self-declared anti-capitalist shadow Chancellor becoming the Britain’s most radical Chancellor since Lloyd George. Respected journalists, like Philip Stephen (PS) of the FT, express animated fear that this self-confessed marxist – if given the opportunity by a gullible electorate taken in his superficial adoption of a friendly old-fashioned bank manager pose – will then proceed to wreak unquantifiable damage on the economy, as he ruthlessly proceeds to dismantle capitalism, regardless of the consequences.
Is then McDonnell Corbyn’s Stalin-in-waiting, or, is the near-hysteria about him rather a symptom of how confined that the parameters of accepted mainstream political analysis have become since the eighties?
Stephens squirms at Labour’s core manifesto policies to re-nationalise utilities and the railways, to impose higher taxes on the corporate sector and on the highest paid, and to further reform the banking sector. Most of all, he appears to take most umbrage at the commitment to ‘irreversible shift power backing to working people and their families’ as a destructive throwback to the seventies, proclaiming with evident fear that with Labour polling close to 40% of the popular vote, turbo-charged by the support of young people in particular, Corbyn could ride a populist surge delivering the keys of 10 Downing Street to him.
The pendulum does, indeed, need to swing back towards ordinary working people, whether by hand or brain. Not least for many of the reasons that PS himself actually lucidly defines or concedes, including that the incomes of most Britons have stagnated or fallen for over a decade while the incomes of FTSE 100 chief executives have quadrupled, that the industries that Mr McDonnell wants to nationalise are now run by ‘avaricious, rent-seeking oligopolies’, that the tax and spending policies pursued by the last two Conservative-led governments have rigged the system in favour of the affluent elderly by loading debt on to students and cutting services for young families, and not withstanding that the bankers who caused the crash are as grossly overpaid as they have ever been: a pretty over-powering case for radical reform, if there ever was.
Certainly, as south London suffers from prolonged water shortages caused by under-investment linked to excess profiteering by a privatised utility, the notion of re-nationalising such utilities appears eminently sensible: at least if effectively and efficiently planned and executed.
The real issue is whether a Corbyn-McDonnell Labour government actually could achieve such a shift of power and opportunity in favour of the many rather than the few. That will require strategic pragmatism where populism was backstaged. The precise detail of the sequencing, funding, and organisation of any future re-nationalisation programme is a case in point.
At another level, one risk is that Labour could exhibit the wrong kind of pragmatism, as suggested by their open-ended manifesto commitment to continue a poorly targeted Help-to-Buy programme: a clear example of reversion to Blairite triangulation. That example of ‘bad’ pragmatism reflects a quite discernible danger that untargeted sops to young people, certain categories of professionals, and other groups – identified by polling as potentially sympathetic to Labour within political circumstances current at the time – and motivated by the pursuit and the maintenance of electoral popularity, will take preference over strategic and sustainable political advance. In short, and ironically, a back-to the-future New Labour focus again on presentation rather than substance: a possible omen, the beloved Jeremy appearing at Glastonbury as the Tribune of the People taking the mantle of Tony Blair as the personification of Cool Britannia. Think about it!
Analysis and informed objective criticism is required, not polemical ‘marxist’ name-calling. Informed and influential journalists, such as PS, should be challenging – and even assisting -McDonnell in terms of developing the detail and rationality of his proposals in conformity with the twin and mutually supporting demands of economic efficiency and social fairness – or, is it, perhaps, the prospect of a shift back in favour of ordinary working people that is the real problem for Stephens and his kind?