Exorcising the ghost of the Alternative Economic Strategy.

AuthorMeadway, James

Between 2017 and 2019, the question of left economics moved centre-stage in Britain for the first time in two generations. The Labour left, from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to the ranks of the new, often young, always enthusiastic members, was handed the extraordinarily difficult task of assembling something that could both return Labour to power and deliver on the immense expectations Corbyn's leadership had produced.

The bureaucratic grind inevitably bequeathed a certain conservatism to the Corbyn project as it emerged. The scope for active policy thinking or experimentation was reduced by the slog of managing a mass party. Both Corbyn and McDonnell were significantly more creative political thinkers than they are typically credited with being; McDonnell, in particular, actively encouraged a broader ferment of ideas and initiatives on left economics, establishing conferences and roadshows to promote and expand the range of Labour's policy thinking, helping to produce a new generation of left economic thinkers, and institutions to promote critical economics. But this was too often divorced from the core political issue of strategy. While UBI may or may not be a good idea on its own terms, the possible connection between an offer of UBI and winning crucial new constituencies was not made or even ever discussed. So, too, with the line of decentralised socialist thinking that emerged around the 2017 Alternative Models of Ownership document: plans like the Meidner-style 'Inclusive Ownership Funds' were left as adjuncts to the core of the offer. Policy was not matched to strategy.

Instead, the core of the Corbynite offer on economics was drawn heavily from the familiar range of the left: nationalisation, income tax changes, and state-led development to promote growth. This was the programme that had been put together the last time the British left had come this close to power, and preserved almost in aspic since the end of the 1980s.

Baris Tufekci's new book, The Socialist Ideas of the Alternative Economic Strategy, provides a detailed, policy-focused history of the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES), as the left's main economic programme of the time was known. (1) In conversation with Tufekci's account, in this essay I will show how the history of the AES can guide the left in learning from its more recent experience under Corbyn. I suggest that the AES, which, as Tufekci shows, was in key ways outdated even in the 1980s, has haunted the Labour left ever since, casting a spell which needs to be broken if the movement is to come up with more realistic strategies for redistributing power, money, time and esteem more equally in our society.


For the activist left, the close of the post-war consensus-a time disappearing rapidly into the murk of the past-is wrapped in heroic myth. From the struggles at the end of the 1960s, through to the 1984-85 miners' strike, the belief is that the left in and outside of Labour posed a fundamental challenge to capitalism in Britain, with the hallowed AES a component part. Tufekci takes a bracingly revisionist view: that the AES, far from being a radical break with Labour's historic economic programme, was far more of a continuation-and that this continuity helps explain its eventual failure in the early 1980s. Yet simply because it was the economic programme of the Labour left the last time the left was close to power, it has exerted a decisive (if generally unexamined) influence over the broad spectrum of the left outside of Labour's leadership under Blair, Brown and Miliband.

So Tufekci's book has perhaps arrived too late. A few years ago, it might have helped show Corbynites that not only were some of the core strategic dilemmas during the period of Corbyn's leadership historically familiar; it might even have helped us avoid some of the errors that were made.

Tufekci is sharp, as other recent historians have been (David Edgerton most obviously), on the unexamined British economic nationalism of the original AES, and the strategic weaknesses this contributed to. These weaknesses played out across the movement: in the failure of Corbynism to make serious inroads in Scotland, notably in failing to produce the upsurge in younger members, and of course in the tangle around Brexit.

Tufekci also does a great service in showing the relationship between economic policy and strategy. The debates over policy on the left at the time were deeply informed by a sense of the wider strategy for social change: policy, we see from the discussions and arguments that Tufekci reproduces, was never separated from the question of a strategy for socialism-not merely the venerable debate of 'reform versus revolution', but an active inquiry into how a Labour government could act, in a changing national and global context, in coalition with its supporters in wider society (notably the trade unions) to bring about transformational social change.

These debates did not happen in the same way or in the same depth for Corbynism: the closest I recall-two moments where a clear strategy was laid out for activists-were two (brilliant) interventions by John McDonnell at sessions at The World Transformed, the Momentum-inspired but independent left fringe event that is now a fixture at Labour Party Conferences. Now available as recordings online, McDonnell lays out his view of how a Labour government could be formed and the likely challenges it would face on the way-a comparatively rare glimpse into the explicit strategy of the Labour leadership. But for the most part, these sorts of strategic discussions did not happen in the movement, and happened still less in relation to economic policy.

There were objective circumstances that weighed against this happening. For the movement as a whole, the period of 2015 to 2017, with its atmosphere of permanent internal crisis, tended to limit longer-range projections on the direction of the Corbyn leadership. For the period after the 2017 election, the national crisis of Brexit had a similar impact, limiting horizons.

But even allowing for these constraints, the failure of the left in general to make clear and explicit its plan to achieve and use power was serious. Post-2017, it boiled down to a 'one last heave' mentality in which Theresa May's flailing government would fall out of power and Labour would swoop in as a kind of historic inevitability. In the place of movement-wide strategic discussion-priorities for government, for example, or thorough consideration of which fractions of capital Labour needed to develop a relationship with-economic policy debate tended towards an argument about the merits, or otherwise, of policy as such: that this or that reform would be necessary by virtue of its own merits, rather than in relation to a broader strategy-a strategy which remained under-theorised and, worse, under-discussed.

On rare occasions, possible strategies were made more explicit: Joe Guinan and Christine Berry's People Get Ready! is exemplary in this respect, but it stands somewhat alone as a strategic statement by two important actors in the movement itself-and, moreover, its version of socialist strategy (written in the full flush of the 2017 election) is significantly concerned with what a left Labour government might do when in government, rather than what might need to happen to help us get there. In reality, these two periods-what the left does out of government, and what it does in government-cannot be easily separated. (2)

The AES debates were by contrast very substantially debates around alternative left strategies. For the left end of the AES's support, encompassing primarily the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and those closest to it, these debates hinged around the question of how the election of a left Labour government could itself also be part of a process of radicalisation in British society, driven by wider social forces. Something like this process of radicalisation would, sometimes, be implied by leading figures in Corbynism, and Berry and Guinan made explicit that they anticipated the movement rallying (indeed, needing to rally) to the defence of a left government, which they viewed as fated (even doomed) to be on the wrong side of a capitalist offensive.

But in general Corbynism did not have a strategic debate to the same extent or in the same depth, and, ultimately, it paid the price for failing to develop this capacity. It inherited much of the AES world-view, and parts of the programme; it did not, unfortunately, also inherit the same institutional capacity to debate strategies for winning power, and-worst of all-it did not inherit the post-war mass union movement that immediately gave such debates relevance and purpose. This was hardly the fault of the movement or anyone in it: we are all on the wrong side of decades of defeat, and the trade union movement today is a whisper of its former self. Despite their six million members-smaller today than then, and more heavily concentrated in the public sector-unions are simply not a part of either political discussion or even everyday working-class life in a way they were two generations ago.

The institutional support that key unions provided, notably Unite, was of course fundamental, to the point where Corbynism makes little sense without also considering the 'turn to Labour' undertaken by Unite under Len McCluskey's leadership. But this turn was, in part, a reaction to the comparative weakness of trade unions as social organisations and could not substitute for the (for example) solid workplace and community organisations of decades past. There is a difference between attempting to use the bureaucratic capacities of a trade union to shape political outcomes at a national level, and using the...

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