Away from the noise of Brexit, Labour – and the British Left in general – is buzzing with new economic ideas more loudly than it has for decades. Moving the privatised utilities to a new form of mutual nationalisation is now Labour policy. So is a new Financial Transaction Tax. Universal Basic Income is entering the political mainstream.
Neither Labour or the Conservatives are willing to admit it, but without winning a general election Labour has already moved the centre of gravity leftwards: even the current Tory government has grudgingly decided to renationalise the probation service and several rail franchises, and the Private Finance Initiative has effectively been ended.
Many believe that a Corbyn-led Labour government could, at long last, end neo-liberalism and set the weather for the twenty-first century with a genuinely new economic system that will end inequality, combat climate change, improve productivity and raise wellbeing. Finally, it is “possible to believe that the bankers’ best days might be numbered,” writes Andy Beckett in the Guardian; even the right -of-centre Economist seems to be giving Labour’s economic ideas a fair hearing.
But how can these ideas capture the public imagination as Thatcher’s policies did? The “right to own” policy – giving employees shares in the companies they work for, as is common in Germany – could potentially become as popular as Thatcher’s Right to Buy in the 1980s, but has yet to really cut through. And if and when Labour wins power, will it have the resilience to make the huge changes such a new system entails?
In a painstakingly researched new book, People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government, Christine Berry and Joe Guinan try to provide some signposts, based both on their own experience of the Left, and a glance back at history. Both are well-qualified to guide us: Guinan is a vice-president of the American ‘think-do tank’ The Democracy Collaborative, and director of its Next System Project (interest declared: he was also a good university friend of mine 25 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch since); Berry is a Fellow of the Next System Project and co-chair of Rethinking Economics.
But at first the book protests too much. A preface is followed by a foreword by Owen Jones and then by an overlong introduction, all of which compete with each other to state truisms that will already be obvious to readers: Labour has a historic opportunity to rebuild the economy but must overcome huge obstacles before it can start.
The book only gathers pace when it breaks new ground, with a fascinating account of how the French Socialists did too little advance planning in the late 1970s, ahead of Mitterrand’s decisive 1981 presidential election victory. As a result Mitterrand’s economic reforms had to be humiliatingly reversed a few years later, as did Syriza’s opposition to austerity in Greece three decades later. As Mark Twain may have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” and both authors clearly have a good ear for the rhymes between Labour’s economic dilemmas in 2019 and those that other post-war European socialist parties have faced.
Equally fascinating is their account of how the Right planned and implemented the last major economic change: the arrival of neo-liberal monetarism from the late 1970s onwards, from which Berry and Guinan argue that the modern Left has much to learn. Most readers will be familiar with the key influences between Thatcher’s strategic thinking: Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics. Guinan and Berry concentrate instead on the tactics, and in particular two documents.
The first is the 1971 ‘Powell Memorandum’, written for the US Chamber of Commerce by Lewis F. Powell, a former president of the American Bar Association later appointed by Nixon as a Supreme Court justice. Powell helped prepare the ground for Reaganomics with a clear set of proposals to shift public opinion rightwards, through a pugnacious attack “not merely on the usual suspects on the left but also consumer rights advocates, environmentalists, and the liberal intelligentsia”. Rather than retell the familiar story of McCarthyism in Hollywood and Congress, Berry and Guinan then tell the more important, and equally fascinating, tale of its academic equivalent: the efforts of the shadowy Mont Pelerin Society, inspired in part by the Powell Memorandum, to insist on greater ‘balance’ in economics courses taught by US universities in the 1970s onwards, in practice a determined assault on the left.
The second document is the Powell memorandum’s transatlantic equivalent: the 1977 ‘Ridley Plan’, written in 1977 by the right-wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley, who “wanted socialism defeated forever”. Ridley – best remembered today as a chain-smoking old duffer fired as Trade Secretary in 1990 for likening Helmut Kohl to Hitler – is here revealed to be an intellectual outrider for confronting the miners, the right to buy council housing, and the “coup de théâtre” of privatising public utilities, several years before Thatcher was converted to these concepts.
Berry and Guinan argue that Thatcher’s victory in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 did not happen by accident, but had been carefully planned as far back as 1977 – in that memorandum written by Ridley, who was still furious about the Attlee government’s nationalisation of his family’s mines in the late 1940s. Refreshingly, there is no rose-tinted nostalgia for the Attlee’s nationalisations which, Berry and Guinan argue, resulted in public corporations that were over-centralised, unaccountable and often run by the same people who had run private industry.
But as we get closer to the present day Berry and Guinan cannot resist the temptation to settle old scores. Blame for the Miners’ failure in the 1980s is pinned squarely on the “spinelessness” of Neil Kinnock and the rest of his Labour frontbench: no mention is made of Arthur Scargill’s many blunders, which played into Thatcher’s hands. In any case, as Berry and Guinan themselves argue persuasively, the strike had been so painstakingly prepared for in advance – with coal stockpiled and secondary strike action outlawed – that no Labour opposition, no matter how ideologically pure, could have averted the NUM’s defeat.
Likewise, the governments of Blair and Brown are predictably dismissed as mere continuations of Thatcherite neo-liberalism, and there’s not even grudging acknowledgement of the huge strides that both governments made in alleviating absolute poverty, investment in public services, equalities and human rights. Rightly, much praise is heaped on the Preston Model, whereby a Labour council is turning around the Lancashire town’s fortunes by local procurement and investment in new economic vehicles. But blaming New Labour for the failure of other councils to follow suit (Guinan has written elsewhere of “ghoulish Blairite zombie local government politics”) is wide of the mark: although many Labour-run authorities are ossified bureaucracies, I know at first hand that in many of them the ossification set in long before Blair.
Berry and Guinan are more plausible about the financial crisis of 2008 onwards, arguing superbly that in 2010-2015 Labour forgot its Gramsci and failed abjectly to “set the narrative”, allowing the public to be convinced that Osbornite austerity was a necessity, not an ideological choice by the coalition government. Ed Balls’ decision to make technocratic demands for an economic “Plan B”, rather than tackle Osborne and Cameron head-on, was akin to “bringing a spreadsheet to a knife fight”, one campaigner has told Berry.
Although Labour now has a “broad brush vision” for the economy, Berry and Guinan argue, there is a “serious lack of resources for translating this into detailed policy development, let alone the kind of battle plans set out in the Ridley plan… Like the neo-liberals, we must build new institutions outside of the political party”. For now, such infrastructure is “worryingly shallow”, they lament. The problem is that Labour has too many organisers and ‘influencers’ and not enough serious economic thinkers. But the book falls into the trap of giving too much credibility to shrill voices such as Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar, the New Statesman’s Grace Blakeley, and the American Jonathan Matthew Smucker (author of Hegemony How-To, an obscure ‘roadmap for radicals’), and not enough to cooler heads such as Anand Menon, Paul Mason and Miatta Fahnbulleh.
Optimistically, Berry and Guinan argue that the IPPR, New Economics Foundation, Momentum, and even Campaign Bootcamp and The World Transformed (in effect the annual Labour conference’s Corbynite fringe) can be just as useful for the modern Left as Thatcher’s favourite think tanks (the Institute of Economic Affairs, Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies, all of which were, they point out, at first run on a shoestring) were for the Right. An intriguing parallel is drawn between Thatcher and Corbyn: both became leaders almost by accident, and were surrounded by a small group of like-minded “long term insurgents inside their own party, having to fight their opponents within as well as without, and not enjoying the party’s full support even once in government.” Berry and Guinan remind us that even Arthur Seldon – co-founder of the IEA – was so disappointed by Thatcher’s first term that he refused to vote Conservative at the 1983 election.
But Thatcher’s think-tanks were always less important than her rich and powerful allies in big business and the media, and though the power of the tabloids has waned since the 1980s it’s still difficult to see how Labour can outwit them. Berry and Guinan rightly predict an onslaught of opposition to Labour’s economic plans from big business and the City of London after an election victory, but underestimate the risk of such an onslaught ahead of one. And the dilemma of whether to continue John McDonnell’s “tea offensive”, or to subject the City to frontal attack, is unresolved.
There are familiar laments about the failure of the Parliamentary Labour Party to “accept Corbynism”, but Corbyn himself never “accepted” Blairism, and Labour’s current Brexit ructions make the old Blairite-Left dichotomy seem increasingly dated in any case. But Guinan and Berry also argue that Corbyn should be given just the sort of latitude they deny to previous Labour governments. To win and hold power the Left “will need to modify its default tendency to denounce any compromise as a betrayal and any politician who makes it as a sell-out… Just as with the Thatcher project, compromises, tactical retreats, and strategic prioritising are inevitable”. As always, the Right looks for converts and the Left for Traitors. Lip service is paid to the need to be “comfortable with debate and dissent”, and a “new style of leadership… based not on big egos, hierarchies, and strict discipline, but on the ability to collaborate, to listen, and to empower others to lead.” but the boundary between dissent and treachery remains undemarcated.
The book is strong on the dangers of Corbynmania becoming a personality cult, and the converse danger that as the movement that Corbyn has engendered continues to develop a mind of its own, it will be inevitably disappointed by the compromises that Labour will have to make if and when it wins power. But Berry and Guinan assume that the movement’s only gripes will be too slow a reversal of austerity, or too lily-livered a stance on finance and big business, not trickier complaints that the party won’t deliver a second referendum on Brexit, or demands that the small circle of cronies around Corbyn take a tougher stance against anti-Semitism and sexist abuse.
Although overcoming these challenges is vital if Labour is to win power, most go unmentioned in this co-authored book. The joins are occasionally visible: I had never before encountered the word “aforementioned” outside an episode of Just a Minute. More seriously, friendly disagreement between its two authors over Brexit (which Guinan accepts and Berry opposes) seems to have led to many other elephants in the room being ignored. Any successful Left movement has to be a broad church to win power in First-Past-the-Post Britain, but the book is curiously silent on how and when to reach out to the resurgent Greens, Lib Dems and SNP ahead of the coalition haggling that may well follow the next general election. In an interview with this month’s Tribune, Berry admits that she “may not… be speaking for my co-author” in identifying the “need to reach out to other potentially radical parties… That’s what hegemony is about — trying to shift the political consensus more broadly, not just within Labour.” Clearly Guinan disagrees with the need to reach out to other parties, so the topic is simply sidestepped.
The book’s preface admits that Brexit is also “somewhat sidestepped” in the text that follows, but if only it could be so neatly sidestepped in real life: the consequences for Labour if a second referendum is denied, or for the country if a hard Brexit isn’t avoided, are not pondered here. The book is very strong on the need to overhaul the Bank of England and the Civil Service, and to confront their neo-liberal bias. But it is, oddly, weak on 21st century technological challenges, and in places reads like a treatise from the 1990s. “The environment” is addressed primarily as just another discrete policy area, and climate change mitigation is only mentioned as a potential recipient of funds from the promised new National Investment Bank, not as an existential necessity. The threats and challenges posed by robotics and artificial intelligence are given scant attention. Foreign policy is another omission: we are told next to nothing about how Labour can prepare international alliances with other left-of-centre governments to take action on human rights or disarmament. China and Russia aren’t mentioned at all, either as growing superpowers or as potential disruptors of our own democracy. Donald Trump isn’t mentioned much until page 163. A 200-page book cannot cover everything of course, but given that Guinan lives in Washington DC the book has a strangely insular, Anglocentric view of the globalised world.
The book sometimes descends into familiar tropes that verge on cliché. It concludes not with a clear vision for the future of socialism in the twenty-first century, but with those over-quoted lines from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy (‘Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number!/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you: /Ye are many—they are few!’). It is not clear what a poem written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819 has to teach us 200 years later, and for a moment I felt I was back in a Balliol tutorial with Joe, outgunned by his teenage brilliance. But 25 years later this ending seems more like a flop like a flourish.
Berry and Guinan quote approvingly John McDonnell’s extraordinary statement that the refusal of many Labour MPs to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet was “the best thing that ever happened to us”. They rightly point out that many young Labour frontbenchers – Laura Pidcock, Angela Rayner, Richard Burgon – are very inexperienced, but do not concede that some of them may have simply been over-promoted. Little attention is paid to more semi-detached figures on the left of the PLP such as Clive Lewis and Lisa Nandy, who have arguably more talent.
Clearly when the book went to press in early 2019 Labour was still roughly neck-and-keck with the Tories in the polls, the Lib Dems had yet to bounce back, the Brexit Party hadn’t even been formed, and a Johnson premiership remained a distant possibility. But the volatility of the polls since 2016, and the absence of a consistent Labour lead in them, is not borne out by the book’s confident assumption that Labour will win the next general election, whenever it is held. Labour “stands on the threshold of power”, readers are repeatedly told. The “biggest risk” Labour faces is not failure to win an election, but that it “loses the prize” and is unable to “survive in government and to implement a radical agenda”. “As Corbyn and McDonnell move ever closer to power, a combination of siren songs and threats from the City are only likely to intensify,” we are warned, but Labour’s disastrous performances at the local and European elections of 2019 show that a much greater threat is that Labour can’t win power at all, except as part of a broad centre-left coalition.
As so often in Corbynite treatises, the 2017 election result is seen as a triumphant victory for Labour, not as a third successive defeat. The huge hurdles that Labour has to overcome to win power – winning 64 seats, most of them marginals last won by Labour when Blair was in Number Ten – is downplayed. Realpolitik suggests that the best way for Corbyn’s people to “get ready” is to head for their nearest marginal and start knocking on doors, not preach to the converted at talking shops such as The World Transformed.
Despite its exhortatory title, People Get Ready! is better as a historical study than as a template for the future. Its optimism is infectious. But election-winning is even more difficult than economic thinking.
People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government by Christine Berry and Joe Guinan is published by OR Books, www.orbooks.com/catalog/people-get-ready/