It’s easy for the left to pick fun at Boris Johnson’s attempt to harness former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt yesterday. The Prime Minister sought to channel FDR in a speech in Dudley, but announced just £5 billion of spending plans, which – as critics were quick to point out – was equivalent to £100 per head, while the Democrat President’s ‘New Deal’ measures were worth £4,300 per head (in today’s money). As Unite the union’s Len McCluskey said: “While the US got the Hoover Dam, the pandemic-hit UK gets a re-announcement of repairs to some bridges in Sandwell”.
But let’s keep our eyes on the big picture here, which is the political trajectory that yesterday’s speech points to. This is set to be the start of a series of spending announcements, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak ear-marking £500 billion in total over the next five years on public investment, which is still not Roosevelt standards but is what former shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had promised if Labour had won the election in December last year. So this is a significant gear-change, and is a long way from the approach of George Osborne and David Cameron to the 2008 financial crisis when they came to office in 2010. Then, capital spending fell from over £70 billion in 2009/10, Gordon Brown’s final year in charge, to under £50 billion by 2012/13 when austerity was at full throttle, before slowly rising again to just short of the 2009/10 figure by 2019/20. So Sunak’s plans for over £100 billion a year will be more than a 100 per cent increase on the public investment at the peak of the austerity era.
It is still a long way short of what is required to respond to a crisis of this depth, but it will not help the left to pretend that this is austerity in disguise. Boris Johnson was in Dudley, a post-industrial market town in the West Midlands, because he wants to deepen the base of support he won in 2019 and knows that a diet of Thatcherite economics will not help him do that. The combination of social conservatism with big economic infrastructure spending is the coming together which he believes can hold together the new Tory electoral alliance built up around Brexit, and give him another majority in 2024.
We should be on guard for the numerous Tory-esque features this public investment is likely to take. One is that it will be done through dishing out lots of money to the Tories big business friends. Expect a wave of outsourced contracts and lots of wasted money. Public money should go towards the public good, not siphoned off by the PFI industry. Then the spending priorities needs to be scrutinised; Britain does not need more HS2’s and Hinkley Point C’s, it needs digital infrastructure, district heating schemes and cheap, good-quality local public transport. Finally, big capital spending does not necessarily mean there won’t be some cuts to day-to-day spending thrown into the mix to aid privatisation and satisfy the Tory backbenchers, especially when affecting demographics that the Tories aren’t aiming to win over at the next election. Some austerity on the sly should not be ruled out.
But most of all, the left needs its own message that can be an alternative to Johnson, one that goes beyond state spending to talk about economic control. Who has power in the new automated, big data economy? Is it Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg or workers and communities themselves? What Naomi Klein has described as a ‘Screen New Deal’ in the US, where a state-corporate nexus builds a new age of digital surveillance capitalism, needs to be challenged in the UK with a compelling alternative that speaks of power, people and place; community wealth building strategies, support for worker and community co-operatives to aid high street revival, and democratic public control over own data all need to be part of the mix of a post-capitalist alternative.
Does the left have what it takes to shape its own narrative, or, like following the 2008 crash, will it end up tailing Tory economic policy again, and once more suffer the political consequences? The signs are not good. We know Keir Starmer and his team want to “rein in” shadow Cabinet spending plans from Corbyn’s days, but it’s not clear how that is going to grasp Dudley from Johnson’s grasp. Starmer and shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds currently don’t have a story to tell about the economy or, indeed, anything. While the SNP hardly have to worry about a political threat from the Tories in Scotland, they are also poorly set-up intellectually to challenge Johnson’s public investment plans, still wielding a vision for independence in the Growth Commission which advocates losing the capacity for public borrowing altogether through setting up an independent country without its own currency and central bank. The quicker that’s officially placed in the dustbin of history the better. The First Minister’s Economic Recovery Group report hardly provides a compelling alternative to Johnson economics either.
Johnson may be easy to ridicule, but he is saying something which will make sense to many people who look around Dudley and only see the signs of decay and decline, and want to know how their town can have a more promising future. What does the left have to say to Dudley?
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