Analysis: Will John McDonnell get the chance to deliver on his bold vision for the economy?

Ben Wray

A four day week, universal basic services and free green technology transfer to the global south are among the shadow Chancellor’s big policy announcements at Labour conference – but will it all be overshadowed by Brexit?

JOHN MCDONNELL’S speech to Labour’s party conference in Brighton on Monday [23 September] was full of good ideas. 

How do we know that? Look at the screeching of Britain’s unhinged right-wing in response. 

The Daily Express: “McDonnell launches his Marxist plan for state control of the economy and crippling taxes”

The Institute of Economic Affairs: “Shadow Chancellor rejects free enterprise, promotes “tried and failed socialist ideology”

What constitutes this evil programme of stalinist nostalgia? Well, it includes such nasty things as reducing the average working week to four days, ending in-work poverty, one million new homes and a cap on rents. Not exactly a dystopia is it (but you don’t want to know what the Daily Express and IEA think utopia looks like…).

McDonnell also announced that he would establish a National Care Service with free personal care for over 65’s, which Nicola Sturgeon was quick to state is already in place in Scotland and was recently extended to all age groups.

The shadow Chancellor’s pitch for free personal care was couched in a vision of universal free services.

“My generation inherited a treasure of public parks, libraries, swimming pools and leisure centres. Free or affordable for all. But in too many cases they’re now gone,” he said.

“By providing public services free at the point of use. These services are part of our shared experiences. Experiences that are too important to be left to the vagaries of the market. Whether a family can afford them or not.

“As socialists we believe that people have the right to education, health, a home in a decent safe environment and, yes, access to culture and leisure.”

Those of us who have been banging the universalism drum in Scotland and were for years opposed by a Scottish Labour under Johann Lamont’s leadership who was vociferous in her commitment to means-testing will be pleased to see that the argument appears to have been convincingly won in the UK party. 

There was even room for some truly daring thinking, with the idea that an entrepreneurial state leading the way with green technological developments could make the patents available free of charge to those in the global south who are in the front-line of climate breakdown, as a form of colonial reparations.

READ MORE: Analysis: Labour suffers from failure to learn the lesson of 2014 about constitutional politics

“We recognise that the first industrial revolution meant Britain was the first major contributor to climate change – something that left a lasting legacy for the global south. And to begin making some reparations for our colonial past, I pledge we will provide to the citizens of the global south free or cheap access to the green technologies developed as part of our green industrial revolution,” McDonnell declared.

Perhaps most importantly, within the four day week policy was a plan for sector wide collective bargaining, a measure that could expand trade union influence well beyond where trade unions have members and level up standards across sectors. For those who so admire the Nordic Model, it’s vital to know that it was built on the back of sector wide collective bargaining, which helped shift the balance of forces between capital and labour decisively. 

“As we roll out sectoral collective bargaining, we will include negotiations over working hours,” McDonnell said. “We’ll require working hours to be included in the legally binding sectoral agreements. This will allow unions and employers to decide together how best to reduce hours for their sector.”

This approach to reducing the working week, advocated by economist Robert Skidelsky in a paper commissioned by McDonnell on the subject, does not make a limit on working hours mandatory, like the French model, but seeks to do so through a combination of strengthened unions and employment law changes which increase statutory leave entitlements. It’s questionable whether it will work, but understandable that they would not seek to impose changes which could reduce incomes and thus inadvertently deepen, rather than reduce, the alienation and insecurity of work in Britain today.

It will be fascinating to see whether the four day week policy cuts through at the ballot box. Work-induced stress and anxiety is a common phenomenon in workplaces across the country. It should be a liberating idea to reduce the burden of work on our lives. The simple notion, expressed by McDonnell today, that “we should work to live, not live to work” has enormous potential to inspire millions. 

But is anyone listening? The Brexit crisis appears all-encompassing, and while there is undoubtedly fatigue amongst people across the UK with it, those who want to just get it over and done with are not going to necessarily find anything in Labour’s offer to make them back the party. If Jeremy Corbyn promises anything on the Brexit crisis it is that it won’t be brought to a quick conclusion under his watch. His proposal to negotiate a Leave deal before then putting it to a People’s Vote may be the most democratic approach on offer from all the UK parties, but it’s probably not what many voters, now stuck firmly on one side or the other, want to hear.

An almighty battle is now underway over whether the party will officially enter a coming General Election as a Remain party or a neutral party. Whatever way that goes, it creates problems for Corbyn, who only appears to have bad options on Brexit available to him. His final hope is that, like in the snap 2017 General Election, he can change the contours of the debate sufficiently to inspire a movement about everything other than Brexit. The four day week policy is one part of that armoury. 

Will the same election trick work twice? Only time will tell. But the ideas espoused by McDonnell today will endure, regardless of who wins the battle to come.

Picture courtesy of Kevin Walsh