John McDonnell’s big mission is to democratise the economy. There is a reason that the historical comparison the shadow chancellor and the wider leadership most frequently make is with Margaret Thatcher, rather than Clement Attlee: they have their sights trained on a restructuring of the economy that they hope would be every bit as sweeping and enduring as the privatisations and deregulation of the 1980s.
For those with the most influence over the leadership’s thinking on the economy – namely McDonnell and Andrew Fisher, Jeremy Corbyn’s outgoing director of policy – it is not so much the distribution of wealth that matters, but the redistribution of power. “Thatcher gave them houses,” one Corbyn staffer is wont to reflect, “we’re going to give them a stake in the economy.” It’s in this context that the shadow chancellor’s conference speech, and the raft of eye-catching policy pronouncements it contained, should really be read.
McDonnell’s promise to introduce a 32-hour statutory working week – or four days, in old money – is the pledge that will generate all the headlines. Ditto his promises that a Labour government would end in-work poverty in its first term and provide free social care for the elderly.
But it is the how of those announcements that matters as much as the what. Affecting that change, McDonnell said, will mean “completely transforming the way our economy works”: specifically via restoring full collective bargaining rights to trade unions, an increase in the minimum wage to £10 an hour, scrapping Universal Credit, capping rents, introducing regional development banks, and requiring the biggest firms to allow workers to elect a third of their directors and own 10 per cent of their shares.
Will it work? The biggest if in all of this, of course, is the question of electability – something McDonnell, who has thought more deeply about the obstacles that litter Labour’s path to power than most of his colleagues, implicitly acknowledged with the section of his speech that addressed Brexit, in which he restated his commitment to campaign for Remain in a second referendum.
A big part of the gamble the Labour leadership has taken in its approach to Europe since 2017 is the assumption that its success in the last general election had as much to do with its economic programme than its appeal to Remainers. The uncomfortable truth for McDonnell and his team, as he himself knows, is that Labour’s ability to form a government that will implement these structural reforms will have very little to do with the content of reforms themselves. After all, nobody voted Conservative in 2010 because they wanted to elect their police and crime commissioner.