Preparing for Government

Mike Phipps reviews People Get Ready: Preparing for a Corbyn Government, by Christine Berry and Joe Guinan, published by OR Books

“If we are serious about fundamental change then the movement around Corbynism needs to take itself seriously as an agent of historical transformation, and to begin laying some serious groundwork,” declare the authors at the start of this important new book. Too often the left is too conservative about the opportunities in front of it – and there’s no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader presents the opportunity of a lifetime for transformational change. The question is: are we ready?

The answer: not yet. In the opinion of Berry and Guinan, we face four important challenges. First, we need a clear understanding of what we need to do. Second, we need to be ready for the hurricane of reaction that will greet a Corbyn government. Third, we need to be able to transform the institutions of government to pursue our agenda. Fourth, we need to build a strong fabric of social movements and intellectuals to sustain what we are seeking to accomplish in government.

So, firstly, we have to understand that a dismantling of the neoliberal system is the central task. The most interesting ideas in the 2017 general election manifesto and developed by John McDonnell’s team subsequently focus on new forms of common ownership. “ Worker ownership, cooperatives, municipal enterprise, community land trusts, public banks, benefit corporations, social wealth funds, and a host of kindred institutional forms all represent ways in which capital can be democratised,” assert the authors.

Bypassing traditional top-down approaches to public ownership, these ideas break significant new ground, particularly in the field of community wealth building, drawing on the Preston model of local government and on a range of experience elsewhere. There are some exciting proposals here, but a great deal more groundwork needs to be done, a point underlined by the discussion here of the problems that Labour ministers faced in the 1940s when introducing the first wave of nationalisations on much more orthodox lines.

Next, there is the wave of reaction that can be expected in response to a radical Labour government. John McDonnell raised this spectre in 2017 when he asked a packed meeting of The World Transformed: “What happens when they come for us?”

Previous Labour governments in 1964 and 1974 executed an early retreat in the face of a run on sterling and other orchestrated economic pressures. Labour’s acceptance in 1976 of IMF-dictated spending cuts led to a collapse in Labour support and paved the way for 18 years of Thatcherism.

Elsewhere a similar pattern emerges. Within two years of a landslide victory in 1981, the French Socialists, in the face of capital flight, abandoned their radical economic policies and adopted an austerity programme that fuelled high unemployment and stagnation.

One alternative to the savage spending cuts and tax rises would have been devaluation – an unthinkable blow to national pride. There’s a clear parallel with Syriza’s recent preference for adopting EU-dictated cuts rather than leave the euro.

To deal with these problems requires a strategy that reorients the entire economy. Pro-Corbyn economist Grace Blakeley suggests that “Labour should think about the banks the way Thatcher thought about the unions.” The power of the City of London, reinforced by the skewing of the economy towards the financial sector, will need to be challenged. The scale of the problem is well mapped, in terms of the banks preying on the rest of the economy and forcing governments to bend to their will. Suggested solutions – building up the power of the democratic economy as a counterbalance, imposing a financial transaction tax, creating a public bank – may not be sufficient – particularly when combined with the Shadow Treasury’s ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’ which prohibits government borrowing to fund day-to-day expenditure.

Is this quest for credibility with hostile financial markets too high a price? With the leadership uneasy about more radical monetary policies, such as ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, which could generate new money for job creation, it’s an open question how far a radical Corbyn government could resist capital flight, an investment strike and other unthought-of sabotage from the City – although the use of capital controls presents an interesting tool of resistance.

Third is the danger of being pushed off course by the machinery of government itself. Attlee’s 1945 government had the advantage of years of experience in the wartime coalition: “They didn’t have to make the abrupt transition from insurgent opposition to governing party.”

In contrast, today’s Shadow Cabinet have no experience of office. Tackling the institutional conservatism of the state bureaucracy will need to go beyond sidelining individuals. Thatcher transformed the civil service over time, by giving it a private sector market orientation. Blair, if anything, continued this approach, deregulating and encouraging business lobbying.

At the centre of government lies the orthodox neoliberal dogma of the Treasury, whose power  will have to be radically dismantled. Previous attempts to tackle this problem, such as Wilson’s 1964 creation of a rival Department of Economic Affairs, foundered.

The Corbyn team will need to do some serious preparation to make its own mark. Central to this is finding ways for ordinary people, rather than corporate lobbyists, to have an input at the highest levels of governance. Lessons might be learned from Iceland’s 2009 citizen’s assembly, Ireland’s 2011 constitutional convention and the rich experience of modern participatory municipalism, for example in Barcelona. Given its power to set interest rates, and thus thwart government economic policy, the Bank of England will also need a radical overhaul.

Finally, how do we build a mass movement in support of a transformational government? Many who had little interest in political party activism a few years ago have now immersed themselves in Corbyn’s Labour. “There is a danger,” note the authors, “ that activists swing from an outright rejection of electoral politics and leadership figures to a wholesale and uncritical investment in them. Forging a path between these two poles is one of the critical tasks facing  the UK left today.” This is not just a theoretical question, if significant numbers of social movement activists abandon their grassroots activity for electoral politics – especially at local authority level, where often a lack of funding and indeed of political ensure that radical policies are screened out.

The Party leadership understand the need for a mass movement to underpin what it is trying to achieve, as John McDonnell’s references to the concept of being both “in and against the state” indicate. But this is no easy task, in conditions, not of growth and upsurge by trade unions and campaigning organisations in recent years, but of a decade of defeats for workers and social movements.

The groundwork was laid in the 2017 manifesto, which framed a new narrative, redefining our solutions as commonsense and painting our opponents as ideological extremists, which I discussed in my own book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power (OR Books, 2018). But these ideas also need organisational forms that reach beyond the Labour Party itself. There are international examples aplenty, but precious few in the UK, although the authors explore some interesting historical cases we might learn from. There are also some new organisations, like the New Economy Organisers’ Network, that are breaking ground in training activists in media and organising strategies – vital work, but not the same as the mass movement we need to build.

How far could Momentum play a role in generating the political debate that can take place in the wider movement? Critics will say that the movement has become too top-down and focused on winning positions within the Party structures. But since this book was written, Momentum have launched some radical policy ideas that go beyond Labour’s existing commitments, such as the abolition of all detention centres, a four day week and aiming to achieve the target of zero net carbon emissions by an earlier date than the Paris Agreement envisages.

These are interesting ideas. Others like them could help promote a two-way debate with activists in broader movements, such as Extinction Rebellion. Some of these ideas have been raised by Shadow Cabinet members themselves, John McDonnell in particular, as legitimate areas of policy debate. It’s perhaps too early to say whether Momentum can play the key role of bringing these discussions to a wider audience and how it might have to modify its own structures for that to happen. One thing is certain: this book, even if it doesn’t solve all the problems it raises, is certainly asking all the right questions, Activists should buy it and apply themselves to finding the answers.