Cooking the Books: John McDonnell Imagines

AT THE end of his speech to the Labour Party conference in September, shadow chancellor John McDonnell offered a definition of socialism. Invoking John Lennon he orated:

‘Imagine the society that we can create. It’s a society that’s radically transformed, radically fairer, more equal and more democratic. Yes, based upon a prosperous economy but an economy that’s economically and environmentally sustainable and where that prosperity is shared by all. That’s our vision to rebuild and transform Britain. In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it’s called socialism.’

Evidently McDonnell hasn’t got much of an imagination as this is something that politicians in the other parties can, and do, subscribe to without calling it socialism. They’re right. It isn’t.

It is not even what in the days of Clause Four the Labour Party used to imagine was socialism. In those days Labour believed that to govern in the interest of trade unionists and other workers they would have to control at least ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ through a substantial state-owned sector. The Thatcher government in the 1980s abolished that.

The nationalised sector of the economy wasn’t socialism either, but a form of state capitalism. Not that McDonnell is promising to bring it back. He accepts that the commanding heights of the economy are to remain in private capitalist hands and is offering only a bit of state intervention and direction:

‘Good business doesn’t need no government. Good business needs good government … the next Labour government will be an interventionist government … our government will create an entrepreneurial state that works with the wealth creators,  the workers and the entrepreneurs to create the products and the markets that will secure our long term prosperity.’

Don’t ask us what an ’entrepreneurial state’ is. It sounds like a state that will help entrepreneurs.

He did promise that, in the lowlands and foot hills of the economy, Labour ‘will promote a renaissance of cooperative and worker ownership.’

Experience, however, has shown that such enterprises don’t last long as they are unable to compete with ordinary capitalist enterprises in the same sector.

None of those set up by Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Industry in the 1970s survived. But even if they had, worker-controlled enterprises producing for sale on a market with a view to profit is not socialism and not what socialists want.

Workers in them have to discipline themselves to work harder and cut costs. It’s what’s been called ‘workers’ self-exploitation’.

McDonnell’s ‘vision’ accepts that a future Labour government would have to act within the framework of a capitalist economy dominated by private, profit-seeking enterprises. That means that it would have to allow these enterprises to make profits and in fact that it has to work with them and not against them, unless, that is, it wants to provoke an economic downturn.

Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, provided a more apt ending for McDonnell’s speech when he told the delegates: ‘Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy.’ How  could it be when you are committed to running a capitalist economy?

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