Making Corbynomics credible

John McDonnell’s appointment of a council of economic experts is a shrewd move

John McDonnell


Labour’s emerging economic policy is coming under intense scrutiny – from friends and foes alike. John McDonnell’s surprise statement that he intends to back George Osborne’s fiscal charter – committing the government to running a surplus during ‘normal times’ – was labelled ‘insanely stupid’ by one of the economists who had formerly given his economic platform a broad welcome.

Caroline Lucas, no doubt voicing the doubts of many of Labour’s new members, said McDonnell had ‘fallen into Osborne’s trap’.

The context for why Labour needed something like Corbynomics – and conversely why John McDonnell feels compelled to endorse the Tories’ fiscal charter, if only his own interpretation of it – was set out recently by the IPPR. Research they have published pinpoints two main reasons for Labour’s defeat in 2015.

First, it wasn’t trusted on the economy, with the 2008 financial crash blamed on Labour overspending. Second, it didn’t give voters on the left enough of a reason to vote for it.

This is the bind Labour finds itself in. Over the last Parliament, Labour tried to regain the public’s trust on the economy by pledging that it, too, would make cuts to reduce the deficit. The main effect of this strategy was to confirm the Conservative narrative and amplify the noise around an issue for which Labour was widely blamed.

To those on the left, meanwhile, it was toxic, Labour coming across as Tory-lite.

To have a hope of winning in 2020 Labour is going to need to appear both credible and principled. Commenting on the IPPR’s research, its director Nick Pearce was sceptical that Corbynomics could deliver both:

“The issue for John McDonnell and others is whether that forthright opposition to austerity simply cements the view amongst the public that your answer to economic problems is to spend money.”

In truth there is no need for Labour to see its options in such either/or terms. There is a substantial body of expert opinion which criticises Osborne’s economics on theoretical grounds. A variety of economists and commentators, not least Keynes’ biographer Robert Skidelsky, have given a broad welcome to Corbyn’s economic platform. Labour can make a credible case for anti-austerity policies.

What this will require is reframing the entire debate on economic policy. This is essential, because for as long as Labour is playing within the rules set by George Osborne it will be on to a loser. But it is also a massive undertaking, since it means swimming against the tide of received opinion.

Until this week, Corbyn’s leadership team did not quite look up to this considerable job. The very fact Labour’s new economic platform has been referred to as Corbynomics – with all its crackpot overtones – has been a problem. Given some of John McDonnell’s past remarks, his appointment as shadow chancellor has presented further challenges. Neither has it helped that the guru behind Corbyn’s economic policy has been reported as an ‘accountant from leafy Norfolk’.

In this context, John McDonnell’s speech to Labour Conference was a major step forward. Its most significant feature was the news that Labour is establishing an Economic Advisory Committee, including Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz. This might seem too much a matter of process to be that interesting, but its potential importance cannot be overstated.

At long last we might see the opening up of lines of communication between the leadership of the Labour Party and heterodox economists who can mount an intellectual challenge to the basis of neoliberalism and the politics of austerity.

This Economic Advisory Committee will be needed to refine the content of Labour’s economic policy. But their biggest job will almost certainly be to convince first the shadow cabinet, and then the PLP, that such ideas could be credible as well as popular.

One concern is whether they will be involved enough (it’s reported they will meet four times a year) to have a decisive influence. Partly for this reason, there is perhaps a case for in addition appointing a chief economic adviser – not just to advise, but even more to be the public face of Labour’s anti-austerity economics.

Even in the best-case scenario this will be a long and difficult process, given the intellectual hegemony built up by the case for austerity. Labour MPs, let alone middle England, may take a lot of persuading – and that is the point: MPs will need to see that middle England can be convinced before they can sign up to it themselves.

So how about this? Labour could build on the appointment of its Economic Advisory Committee by launching an inquiry into how to get the economy working again, for every region and sector of society. Such an inquiry could take evidence from a range of expert opinion, not just those already among its advisers – allowing Labour’s emerging ideas to be fully tested in debate.

And it could take evidence in public around the country, and hear both from businesses and local people about their needs and abilities, and where the current economic system was not meeting them.

By making such an effort to listen, Labour might win the right to be listened to. The extended nature of such a process might win credibility for new ideas by their very repetition – and convince people over time that a new approach was worth a try.

Bill Blackwater is associate editor of Renewal: A journal of social democracy

24 Responses to “Making Corbynomics credible”

  1. jacko

    John McDonnell would say anything to get his hands on the keys to Number 11. If he ever did, he would instantly revert to his crackpot Communist persona. Don’t forget that this is the man who wanted to give medals to IRA terrorists, but now claims he said this merely to help the peace process. Yeah, right.

  2. stevep

    Trolling on behalf of the far-right poverty deniers as usual, using the same tired old rhetoric………..Yawn.

  3. jacko

    Actually, I voted Labour in 1997 and 2001. If it wasn’t for people like me switching to Labour in 1997, the Labour party would never have been re-elected, and without voters like me coming back it never will again.

  4. stevep

    Like I said…….Yawn.

  5. RuthB

    I thought there was going to be an economic inquiry/consultation such as you describe – have I misunderstood?

  6. JoeDM

    Surely you mean Moronomics !!!

    The man is a communist.

  7. stevep

    Communists must be more popular than are given credit for, after all David Cameron`s over in China selling fair chunks of British industry to them at knockdown rates, as we speak.
    Perhaps you`re on to something!

  8. frankie

    I really like Corbyn’s foreign policy, but I think his economic policies are terribly crass & unimaginative and have been repeatedly shown in history to end with impoverishment for almost all in society except the senior party apparatchiks. The ideas behind Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s economic policy need to be consigned to the dustbins of history, to rot along with feudalism, slavery, colonialism etc.

  9. pencil

    How can ideas which logically and historically have been proven to be complete failures, ever be made credible. If printing money was the answer to economic prosperity, zimbabwe would be the wealthiest country in the world!

  10. Tanc

    So what was quantitative easing?

  11. Tanc

    Think its time you goosestepped back to your little cave.

  12. Mann T.

    Early days yet. There will be a wide and varied programme of public debate through all media. The party meeds to up its game in use of web-sites. The Your Britain site is totally cringe-worthy.

  13. RuthB

    The site is not only cringe-worthy, it actually makes me feel poorly, the combination of colours or something. I complained about it when it first went up, with no success. But I’ve discovered you can use the “accessibility” tools in IE to get rid of those awful colours – also on those sites that have annoying adverts rolling up the sides, you can get rid of them the same way. Sorry, that’s a bit off-topic but if we are going to make more use of the internet, you’re right, we’re going to have to get better websites, etc.

  14. Mann T.

    I agree completely. As they say in the Daily Mail….. Something Must Be Done. And I think it will. We are in new times. Our voices will be heard.

  15. Peter Martin

    We all need to be thinking about the nature of economics from a government’s POV. It’s not the same as our POV! Once we accept that it’s all easy enough.

    Say an government issues a new currency. Maybe the Greek government. They issue 100 million currency units into the economy to pay their workers and other expenses. Where does it come from? Nowhere. Its just created in a computer or printed on a press.

    In the first year the govt receives back 60 million in taxes. .So the Government now have a debt of 40 million. Where has it gone? Well the people have 30 million in their wallets and piggy banks. They’ve bought some imports from Germany so the Germans have 10 million in their central bank.

    So Govt Debts = Assets(Monetary) of Domestic Sector + Assets(Monetary) of Overseas Sector.

    No Govt debts means no-one else has any assets! The Govt has to be in debt!

    It really is that simple!

  16. andagain

    “The issue for John McDonnell and others is whether that forthright opposition to austerity simply cements the view amongst the public that your answer to economic problems is to spend money.”

    It almost certainly does. After all, when was the last time Labour said it would spend less money than the other lot? So Labour will always be the high tax/borrowing party.

  17. stevep

    Well, Capitalism has failed, that`s for sure. It almost wiped us out when the banks collapsed.
    It only delivers to the elite few, with everyone else on a downward spiral to crap jobs, crap wages or payday lenders and foodbanks.
    Democratic Socialism on the other hand has given us The NHS, the Welfare State, free education, paid holidays, decent pensions, sex equality etc. It has also given us a sense of dignity and community.
    Do you really want to go back to the poverty, misery and unhealthiness of pre-WW2 Britain, let alone Victorian times? Because that`s where we`re headed if this mess of a Tory Government has it`s way.
    Britain, a paradise for the wealthy few. Slavery and penury for the rest of us.
    No, I don`t think so.

    Bring it on, Jezza!

  18. Selohesra

    A council of economic experts might seem a good idea to get variety of views before forming policy – however if the council packed full of the likes of Blanchflower, Pickety & Stilglitz then I think we know what they are going to say before they open their mouths. He’s just surrounding himself with people who he agrees with

  19. treborc

    Sorry but obviously you should have stayed with the Tories.

  20. George Topping

    Jacko, thanks for switching to Labour it’s appreciated.

  21. George Topping

    Keynsian actually which is quite mainstream in contrast to laissez-faire which has led to boom and bust.

  22. David Hargreaves

    No it isnt.

  23. Patrick Nelson

    “How can ideas which logically and historically have been proven to be complete failures, ever be made credible”

    You obviously mean things like corporate welfare, privatization and the likes. Will those Tories ever learn?

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