From the archive: Never mind Mao, what’s Labour’s five year plan?
Can we agree that the Chairman Mao skit really didn’t work?
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s underlying point was (I think) a good one: the Tories claim to be the party of British identity and sovereignty, but are apparently happy to see British business and critical infrastructure sold-off to the Chinese (one could add, because of the Tory economics that seems to disdain investing in our own economy for our own benefit).
So why not really make that point – make it seriously, spend some time embarrassing Osborne by going through the deals he negotiated, how bad they are for the country and taxpayer, and what they say about the Tories’ poverty of ambition? How they’re selling-out Britain.
Instead, this Tories’ achilles heel was completely obscured by the stupidity of the Little Red Book stunt – and no, it’s not just a media get-up, but rather illustrates how hapless and hopeless Labour’s leadership is, how strangely unserious they are (also, how would the twittersphere react to a Tory quoting from, say, General Pinochet, who killed far fewer people, if we’re counting?).
The real Labour haplessness however remains strategic, which is to say it’s economic response still sounds hopelessly confused. McDonnell started by mocking Osborne for missing and ignoring targets and his failure to control public spending. He characterised Osborne’s “sheer economic illiteracy built on poor judgment”, and his autumn statement as “not an economic plan but a political fix”. That wasn’t bad, but then came criticism after criticism of cuts, closely followed by the claim that Labour would reduce the deficit but “fairly and responsibly” – presumably by reversing all the cuts? Or just some of them? Or…?
In this context, such is Osborne’s freedom of movement, it’s almost as if he’s decided to become his own opposition.
His pre-announcement spin, optimistic OBR projections, and possibly some very late in the day U-turns, collectively produced a wildly incoherent autumn statement. Osborne simultaneously claimed that his plan is working, that more cuts are necessary, and that we could afford a potpourri of consciously liberal-lefty ‘giveaways’. The real details are still coming out, but the headlines have already written (one blogger wryly pre-satirised these as: ‘George Osborne hailed as genius, for scrapping last George Osborne genius move’).
So, both sides sound horribly confused – but of course Osborne is in power, which means he gets to do what he wants (most of the time).
If I had to guess, the unexpected reliance on the growth projections for giveaways now means that Osborne is betting on there being a major global downturn and/or shocks in the next 2-3 years – he’ll say, ‘well everything was on track before the crisis struck, what can you do?’ (p.s. you still can’t trust Labour, just look at them). Sadly, it’s probably a winning strategy.
In all the confusion, liberal commentators still like to suggest that the Tories have no vision. This isn’t true. Their vision is for a smaller state (that still benefits big business behind the scenes). And it’s one that’s easily communicated to the public: ‘less state equals more growth and more freedom’.
What’s Labour’s alternative? Last week, McDonnell began to put one forward – headlined ‘socialism with an iPad’ – as he promised Labour would make the UK one of the world’s great technology centres but also provide security for the army of new workers, many self-employed, who have been casualised by the internet.
McDonnell’s solution was to talk about a “state that can think and act strategically”, investment in research and development and infrastructure, worker participation in management, and “re-establish[ing] a supply chain of information between shop floor and government that brings workers and unions together to advise policymakers on the future direction of the economy.”
This all sounds just a touch 1970s corporatist and unworldly. It also won’t mean anything to the public. Yet again Labour is speaking academically and abstractly rather than practically to people with bills to pay.
McDonnell’s approach reportedly marks a change in Labour’s strategy from the so-called ‘austerity lite’ under Ed Miliband. He and Jeremy Corbyn have seemingly decided to embrace the inevitable ‘deficit denier’ tag, and McDonnell has previously said that Labour’s alternative to the Tories’ austerity could be summed up in three words: ‘investment, investment, investment’.
Along with the 70s corporatism, the Tories will easily tag this as ‘spending, spending, spending.’
At some point, and it probably won’t happen until after their next defeat, Labour will have to start talking about a smaller state – one that isn’t geared around the interests of big business like the Tories version, but around real people’s real priorities, and which serves to present a less statist Labour that has a plan for spending less of their money more wisely.
Until then, Labour is trying to counter Osborne’s essentially political but illiterate economics with its own essentially economic but illiterate politics.
Just like McDonnell’s Mao stunt.
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