Competent management by Labour of the same rigged system isn’t enough

Gaya Sriskanthan

Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds set out Labour’s new economic approach in the annual Mais lecture this week. After months of criticism from Labour members that the party lacked new ideas and a cohesive vision, I hoped the lecture would lay out a new left platform that addresses the dual crises of climate and Covid and offers solutions to the real problems facing working-class people. This was not the case.

There were positives in the lecture, certainly. The opposition to short-term ‘fiscal tightening’ gives some indication that Labour will oppose any potential government attempt at austerity 2.0, despite the mixed signals coming from the leadership on public debt. There were solid references to taking on monopolies and a clear critique of both the erosion of workers’ power and an economy that brings greater returns to unproductive wealth than productive labour.

Dodds’ explicit commitment to long-term investment and planning, too, is a welcome step, and we should work to define the scale and type of this investment. But overall the speech followed a pattern of gesturing towards centrally important issues before retreating into incremental managerialism that failed to present clear solutions.

Labour can only win if we have a transformative vision that cuts through the dominant ways of thinking about the economy and allows voters to see the alternatives on offer. Over the last five years, there has been a huge amount of work done on what this vision should look like, and just as importantly how we communicate this vision to the widest possible audience. The basic conclusion is that we need to tell an honest story about how, over the last four decades, the economy has been rigged in favour of the super-rich and big business.

Our broken economic system isn’t a natural fact of life – it has partly been designed that way by a political elite, driven by profit and comfortable with an explosion of inequality that has left the vast majority of society behind. If they changed the rules to suit the rich, we can change them back to suit the rest of us by systematically rebuilding and transforming the economy so that it works for everyday people and delivers millions of green jobs, regional investment, social housing and properly funded public services.

Instead of taking this approach, Labour now appears primarily committed to fighting the Tories over ‘waste’ and ‘irresponsibility’. Rather than leaning into our fundamental ideological differences and defining the debate in terms of who the economy works for – the billionaires and mega-corporations, not the ordinary people of Britain – it seems we will spend the next four years debating on the Tories’ turf. It’s not only bad politics, which fails to reflect the policy ambition to which Starmer committed through his ten pledges, it’s also bad communication. Whatever positives were there in Dodds’ speech were buried by cautious technical framing that seemed to pointedly build distance from the economic vision of the 2019 manifesto.

The most profound example of this diminishing ambition was perhaps Dodds’ complete retreat from the Green Industrial Revolution platform. Climate collapse featured primarily in her lecture as an ‘exogenous threat’ to the smooth functioning of a capitalist economy. But the reality is that the climate crisis has been produced by exactly that functioning.

It’s not a problem that arose external to capitalism and can be solved by some twiddling with the dials of fiscal policy. The pursuit of profit by fossil capital is what got us into this situation in the first place, and unless we tackle that relentless pursuit of growth at all costs and re-orient the economy towards societal betterment, this century will be a very dark one. Ironically, despite Dodds’ chronic overuse of the word, there is nothing “resilient” about a capitalist economy that will try to unsuccessfully ride the waves of climate collapse. What is needed is a socialist economy that has been mobilised to prevent exactly that collapse in the first place.

Dodds’ response didn’t come close to tackling that reality head on. It reiterated the watered-down green investment and job creation figures presented in Labour’s disappointing green recovery paper. It put forward tepid exercises for testing budget lines against net-zero goals, with few hints of how the economy needs to be transformed to get us there. In the face of a crisis that calls for the complete reorientation of our economy as we know it, a managerial bookkeeping approach is as ineffective as it is underwhelming.

The Corbyn project never cracked the code of how to form a popular coalition of voters in modern Britain. The party was certainly not aided by a hostile press that reflexively overused labels like “hard left” to discredit what were actually solid and well-thought-out economic proposals, but its own messaging stumbles played into this. The 2019 manifesto failed to secure mass support or reframe the election debate away from Brexit.

I’m not pretending that we can find all the answers we need to the many crises of our conjecture by flicking back through the archives of Corbynism. But equally, without drawing dividing lines on the values underpinning how the economy operates, without a big picture vision connected to life-changing policies, and without a persuasive story of what neoliberalism has done to our workplaces and communities, the economy will continue to be our Achilles’ heel.

But these policies mustn’t be developed behind closed doors or by technocrats divorced from everyday struggle. Our movement of millions must take the lead, drawing on the collective knowledge of our communities and the detailed policy work done in the last half decade. Later this month, Momentum will launch a policy primary process, allowing members to decide which policies we campaign on at Labour Party conference, as part of our plans to become a truly democratic organisation.

The Shadow Chancellor is right to criticise Tory corruption, right to argue for long-term planning, and right to oppose a new round of austerity. But it’s not enough to say that Labour will be more competent managers of the same rigged system. The crises of Covid and climate collapse demand bigger and bolder answers. Taxing the rich and fundamentally altering the balance of power in favour of working people – that’s the vision we need, and we need it now.

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