The unspoken dilemmas of Corbynomics.

AuthorMurphy, Colm

Advocates of Corbynomics will need to decide on the place of decentralisation and democratisation within their overall vision of economic transformation. History shows just how difficult it is for the left to give up on the idea of manipulating the levers of the central state to bring about change. And if we are serious about decentralising power we must consider how we will also achieve the paradigmatic changes needed to decarbonise our economy and save our planet.

The recent launch of the think tank Common Wealth by Mathew Lawrence is the latest portent of a new left-wing political economy in Britain. (1) This flowering of Corbynomics--in which Renewal has played an integral part--has generated a stimulating cohort of proposals and is a sign of a new confidence among the British intellectual left.

However, there are ambiguities nestled within the emerging agenda of Corbynomics. Its proponents champion democratising and decentralising the economy through industrial democracy and further devolution. Yet, they simultaneously advocate far-reaching, ambitious policies, like debt jubilees and Green New Deals, which may not gel easily with a wish to pluralise economic and political power.

These kinds of issues are not new. Since the 1970s, Labour's left-wing thinkers have struggled with similar dilemmas over the role of decentralisation and democratisation within their broader political vision. Debate has raged over whether Corbyn wants to take Labour 'back to the 70s', and in this issue of Renewal, Lewis Bassett argues that, in crucial respects, Corbynomics differs from its Bennite ancestor. Still, revisiting the debates of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s today reveals key questions that proponents of Corbynomics will have to answer, if they hope to provide an intellectual framework for a Labour government.

The 'institutional turn'

Among the British left in recent years, there has been a resurgence of calls for fundamental reforms to economic statehood and ownership. This has some roots in Ed Miliband's 'predistribution' agenda, but was turbocharged by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. More widely, it has been filliped by the 2008 crash, insurgent left challenges to social democratic establishments across Europe and the United States, and finally the Brexit vote--which, whatever its underlying roots, has led commentators to highlight regional, wealth and income inequalities. (2)

This 'Corbynomics' has been fleshed out in Renewal, and by think tanks like the IPPR, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, and the USA's Democracy Collaborative. There are differences between these groups, but the broad aim is to 'hardwire' redistribution into the economy, rebalancing the economy at the point of production. A loose consensus has also emerged over the need to transform economic governance, through decentralisation and democratisation of both political and economic power. (3)

The golden child for Corbynomics is Preston City Council, with its explicit encouragement of local procurement through anchor institutions like educational bodies and housing associations, as an attempt to rejuvenate Lancashire's economy. (4) Novara Media's Ash Sarkar even praised the council recently on Have I Got News For You.

In other words, left-wing economics in this country has taken an 'institutional turn'. As influential proponents Martin O'Neill and Joe Guinan have outlined, this foregrounds ownership and the interconnections between political and economic structures. (5) Alongside more prominent Corbyn-McDonnell pledges like nationalisation of the utilities, Corbynite thinkers advocate further devolution to the nations and regions, expanding collective bargaining, and democratising enterprises. (6)

Past echoes

Some of Corbynomics stands out as new in the British context--for example, the proposal for a Citizen's Wealth Fund. (7) Yet many of its propositions bear a family resemblance to recurring left-wing ideas in political economy. The British left has long been interested in institutions--a glance at the Wilson governments would tell you that. Moreover, those who argue for a four-day week today have more in common with 1990s thinkers who contributed much to Blairism, like Patricia Hewitt, than may be apparent at first glance. (8) Outside the UK, some have compared Corbynite ideas like the inclusive ownership fund to the Swedish Meidner Plan. (9)

Two historical comparisons from the British Labour Party are especially relevant: first, the theorists behind the 'Alternative Economic Strategy' (AES) of the 1970s...

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