The Labour Party’s new economic advisory committee, announced in September last year, is already unravelling.
Recruiting the group of seven respected academics – including “rockstar” economist Thomas Piketty – at first appeared to be a coup for Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell. But the committee’s relationship with the party is on the rocks.
The idea is that the committee reports directly to Corbyn, and is convened by McDonnell four times a year to discuss ideas. These ideas are supposed to feed into Labour’s official economic strategy. So far, the committee has met once, and the two most high-profile economists – Piketty and anti-austerity heavyweight Joseph Stiglitz – were not present. Others on the team have accused the party of having “stupid ideas” about economic policy.
David Blanchflower, a professor in economics at Dartmouth who is a member of the committee, reveals Labour’s economic policy problems in this week’s New Statesman. He laments that the party’s opposition to austerity is not enough, warns the party that “markets work”, and calls on the Labour leadership to begin “getting real” about economics, urging them to “learn fast”.
Blanchflower slams Corbyn’s recent proposal to ban companies from paying shareholders unless staff earn the living wage, calling it “silly”.
He also reveals that he has “never even spoken” to Corbyn, and insists that he is “not a Jeremy Corbyn supporter”.
“These are early days and the new Labour Party still doesn’t have many economic policies to speak of. The problem is that opposition to austerity on its own is not enough. It is time to start thinking about how Labour can become a credible opposition – and that requires getting real about the economy.
“The new Labour leaders are not economists and are going to have to learn fast. They will have to accept the realities of capitalism and modern markets, like it or not. No more silly stuff about companies not being able to pay dividends if they don’t do X or Y . . . Plus, markets work. The one thing we know about incomes policies (such as price and wage controls) is that they don’t work.”
He urges Labour to form concrete policies, beyond ending austerity:
“It is hard to identify when a country is entering a downturn but we may already be in one and Labour needs to have a response ready. More stimulus and the end of austerity are the answer, I hear you say – but then what?”
His criticism coincides with Labour’s plan to hold public debates about UK economics to boost the party’s economic credibility. The first lecture in the series was held at the Royal Institution in London last night (Tuesday 26 January). McDonnell hosted the event, in which Mariana Mazzucato, a member of the economic advisory committee and University of Sussex economist, spoke about the relationship between the public and private sector.
Corbyn was sitting in the front row, taking notes, throughout the event. When asked by the IBTimes if these sessions will boost trust in Labour on the economy, he replied, “yes, because these are ordinary people, some are economists, some are people working in different sectors – they are all ordinary people, we have all got ideas. There’s a bit of a genius in everybody, we’ve just got to unlock it”.
But perhaps he’ll have to bolster Labour’s economic credibility among his own economic advisers first…