“Where are the policies?” It is a question Labour MPs have often asked in the months since Jeremy Corbyn’s election. Some are reminded of Gordon Brown, who hinted at a social democratic masterplan before becoming prime minister only for the cupboard to prove bare. If the comparison is rather unfair (Brown had years to prepare, Corbyn had weeks) it is also true that the Labour leader’s agenda has often been absent or unclear, leaving internal divisions to fill the void.
Corbyn’s Fabian Society speech was an attempt to change this, proposing a renationalised railway, health and social care integration, democratic control of energy, a lifelong education service and universal childcare (ideas quickly obscured by his exchanges with Andrew Marr on Trident, the Falklands and secondary strike action). Today, John McDonnell made one of the most intellectually rich speeches by a Labour politician since the election.
The established image of the shadow chancellor is of a man who wants to nationalise the corner shop. But McDonnell, addressing the Co-operative conference, sought to dispel this impression. “Whilst opinion polls report clear majority support for basic, longstanding demands like nationalising the railways,” he noted, “there is a deep cynicism about the capacity of government to deliver.” This, he added, meant the left needed to look beyond the state to alternative forms of ownership. He invoked the “long labour movement tradition of decentralisation and grass-roots organisation” from “RH Tawney, GDH Cole and the guild socialists, back to the Rochdale Pioneers, the Society of Weavers in Fenwick, Ayrshire, and even further back to the radicals of the English Civil War.”
McDonnell went on to propose a new “right to own” for workers offering them “first rights on buying out a company or plant that is being dissolved, sold, or floated on the stock exchange.” The details were unclear – where would the money to buy or capitalise the companies come from? – but the instinct is right. Some close to Ed Miliband such as his strategist Stewart Wood talked often of ideas such as profit-sharing but they were never fleshed out. McDonnell recognised that the absence of a clear economic vision from Labour was one reason for its defeat. “The charity Nesta published a fascinating piece of research recently, showing how ‘future-focused’ the different party manifestos were in last year’s election. The Tories talked relentlessly, overwhelmingly about the future. Labour, strikingly, did not. We cannot allow that to happen again. We cannot be small ‘c’ conservatives.” As is often noted, Labour has only won when it has owned the future: in 1945, 1966 and 1997.
But others in Labour emphasise that before offering a new vision, the party needs to master the basics. At present, it trails the Conservatives by more than 20 points on economic competence and its profligate image will be hard to shed. McDonnell acknowledged as much when he said “we can’t pretend state spending is the answer to everything”. But many MPs believe that message needs to be repeated far more often before the voters will take another look at Labour.