New Economy Journal

The Contours of a Revolution: Brexit, Corbyn, Sanders and the New Left Economists

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Volume 1, Issue 6

October 2019

By - Duncan Wallace

Piece length: 3,079 words

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Cover image: Corey Torpie, Wikimedia Commons
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It’s good to have hope, and even better to have good reasons your hopes will be realised.

We haven’t had good reasons for hope for a long time. Since the GFC, we have lurched from one disappointment to another – we've felt let down by what we thought were progressive forces; we've experienced the imposition of austerity, essentially world-wide; we've seen people become political leaders for whom it might previously have seemed unimaginable – Bolsanaro, Abbott, Trump, Boris Johnson. There has not been much good news, and the bad news has been really bad – the worst pertaining to the higher and higher rate of the destruction of life on earth.

It is time we had some good news, and this article will outline the reasons we have to expect some soon. More than good news – this article will suggest we have reason to feel great excitement. We are slowly seeing come into alignment a potentially strong coalition of left-wing governments, committed to equality, industrial democracy, massive investment in greening the economy, and climate justice. We may be about to witness the beginning of a radical, internationally coordinated effort by some of the world’s largest economies to tackle climate change and the social and economic structures which have created it. It’s a quiet revolution, but it is momentous.

In the following I’ll outline the contours of this revolution, with a focus on the biggest and the fifth biggest economies in the world – the United States and the United Kingdom. We’ll look at the latter first.

Contents

[1] UK Labour Party
[2] Brexit
[3] “Corbyn’s inner circle”
[4] Bernie Sanders
[5] The upshot
[6] What about Australia?

[1] UK Labour Party

The London Financial Times, says Chomsky in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, “is the only newspaper that tells the truth”.

Given that, it is interesting to note the Financial Times (or the FT) seems to be preparing for a potential Corbyn government in the UK, recently running a series titled “The Corbyn Revolution”, which includes five in-depth articles regarding his policy agenda and his key inner circles.

In the series are detailed only those policies already announced, but even these, says the FT, “are breathtaking in scope”.

They include “the nationalisation of rail, water, mail and electricity distribution companies; significantly higher taxes on the rich; the enforced transfer of 10 per cent of shares in every big company to workers; sweeping reform of tenant rights; and huge borrowing to fund public investment.”

“But this”, reports the FT, “may be just the start.”

“The leadership is also studying an array of even more radical ideas, including a four-day week, pay caps on executives, an end to City bonuses, a universal basic income, a “right to buy” for private tenants and a shake-up in the way that land is taxed to penalise wealthy landlords.”

This is by far the most radical set of policies put forward by a party on the cusp of government in the Anglo world in my lifetime – perhaps even since WWII. The only comparable example in Australia’s history is the Whitlam government, and even that may pale in comparison.

How can a party with that kind of program expect to be anywhere near government? The history is deeper and will be explored below – but the more immediate explanation is Brexit.

[2] Brexit

Leaving the EU has been a strange obsession of a small subset of the population in the UK for many years, mostly among elites in the Conservative Party. They managed to push former PM David Cameron to agree to a referendum – and that would have been as far as it got, but for the reckless way the referendum was allowed to be carried out (as detailed by author and award winning columnist for the Irish Times, Finton O’Toole).

Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote and was replaced by Theresa May, who immediately called a general election in an attempt to entrench her power. Corbyn’s Labour Party, however, – despite the extraordinary attacks they faced from across the media spectrum – forced a hung parliament. May lost her majority, though through a coalition with extremist protestants from Northern Ireland she just managed to form a government.

What has then followed is perhaps the most extreme discord between the House of Commons and the Executive since the period of the English Revolution in the 1640s.

Theresa May managed to negotiate Brexit deals with the EU, but the House of Commons would not pass any of them into law. One Brexit deal put to the Commons caused the biggest defeat ever inflicted on a government, by 230 votes. After two more defeats May resigned. The most extreme wing of the Conservative Party Brexiteers then took over, in the form of Boris Johnson.

The UK is due to leave the EU – deal or no deal – at the end of October, unless they agree to an extension. The EU is willing to grant one – it only requires the UK to request it.

But Johnson is set on leaving, even without a deal, on the currently agreed date. This is extremely contentious. A no-deal Brexit, it is commonly recognised, would be disastrous on all fronts. The majority of the House of Commons do not want a no-deal Brexit; they say the referendum result should not be interpreted as endorsing Brexit without a deal; and they have the votes to stop Johnson from carrying one out. The only way Johnson can secure the exit he desires is to escape his accountability to the Commons.

The Commons has a tradition involving a figure called Black Rod. When the Queen is giving a speech or giving assent to a bill, Black Rod goes to the Commons to ask for the attendance of MPs. Black Rod, on their approach to the chamber, has the door slammed in their face. After knocking three times with their staff, they’re finally admitted. This piece of ancient theatre dates back to 1642, and symbolises the independence of the Commons from the executive. It is a reminder of Charles I and his attempts to stop the Commons from sitting, attempts which culminated in his beheading. It is a reminder that the Executive is responsible to the Commons, and not the other way around.

Black Rod knocks on the door to the Commons

Black Rod knocks on the door to the Commons. Credit: UK Parliament

Boris Johnson is engaged in an extraordinary attempted subversion of this tradition.

He has planned for a Queen’s Speech to mark his takeover from Theresa May. It is normal in the case of a Queen’s Speech for parliament not to sit for a week or two preceding it – this is what’s called prorogation. But Johnson has prorogued parliament for five weeks. When the Commons’ Speaker, John Bercow, was summoned by Black Rod for the start of the prorogation in early September, he called it “not a normal prorogation... it represents an act of executive fiat”. The Editorial board of the FT published its view that “Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament is an affront to democracy”. At the time of writing Scotland’s highest court had deemed it unlawful, though the UK Supreme Court has yet to rule.

Just before the start of the prorogation, however, the Speaker allowed the Commons to take control of the agenda and pass emergency legislation, requiring Johnson to ask the EU for an extension on Brexit. Twenty-one Conservative MPs voted against Johnson in favour of the legislation, and were promptly booted by Johnson from the party. This means he has lost his majority in the Commons. Indeed, since taking over the Prime Ministership, he has experienced six out of six Commons defeats.

At the time of writing, Johnson is attempting to call an election, but the Commons has so far refused – insisting that the extension on Brexit first be confirmed. Though there are rumours Johnson will refuse to act as required and may ultimately have to be forced into complying with the law by the Supreme Court, sooner or later he must ask for the extension. Once this is done, there will be a general election.

It looks extremely unlikely that a majority of the House of Commons could agree on a preferred Brexit deal, so if Johnson was re-elected with a majority a no-deal Brexit would likely result. Corbyn has promised another referendum on Brexit which, if done responsibly, would likely yield a stay vote. For this reason, the FT recently reported the “markets are warming towards Jeremy Corbyn.”

“Yes, you read that right. In a sign of just how unpredictable UK markets have become, analysts are starting to believe that the diehard socialist leader of the Labour party could be just what sterling needs in this, its darkest hour.”

In other words, with the backing of capital, Corbyn looks likely to be elected as the next Prime Minister of the UK.

It is almost unbelievable. A Party which has said it will make all businesses with more than 250 employees at least 10% employee owned; a party committed to a form of nationalisation where the government agency is under the control of “the people who use and work in them”; a party which has committed to $250 billion investment in the transition to green energy; a party which is dedicated to international peace and non-proliferation – this is the same party that looks like it will be backed by capital. And all thanks to Brexit.

So that is how Corbyn is on the cusp of Prime Ministership. But how did he become leader of the Labour Party in the first place, and where do his policies come from?

[3] “Corbyn’s inner circle”

In 2015 the UK Labour Party lost an unlosable election under Edward Miliband, with similar policies and approach to those which recently lost Bill Shorten the election in Australia. Miliband resigned, as Bill Shorten did, and an election for Labour Party leader was held. As an act of generosity, Corbyn was put forward by a handful of MPs as a left-wing alternative to the centrist, more Blairite candidates. Fortuitously, the party, in order to attract funding, had recently relaxed the rules on membership and eligibility for participation in the leadership vote. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up in order to vote Corbyn in and so, with a majority of Labour Party MPs hostile to him, Corbyn became leader.

Since then, activists around the country – most obviously through the group Momentum – have been working to entrench Corbyn’s position. With Corbyn and his allies in the Labour Party, they have worked quietly and steadily to take over the important agencies in the party. They have taken control of the National Executive Committee, for example, which decides Labour’s policies and overall direction. In the last round of elected positions, all the positions were filled by candidates running on a Corbynite platform.

Other than Corbyn, the most significant figure in this is the MP John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor. The FT labels him “the intellectual power behind Jeremy Corbyn’s throne”. He recently edited a volume titled Economics for the Many, and on the front cover it provides the following statement:

We are seeking nothing less than to build a society that is radically fairer, more democratic, and more sustainable, in which the wealth of society is shared by all.”

This leads us to one of the important groups identified within “Corbyn’s inner circles” by the FT. They are what the FT calls “policy makers” – the “small number of influential academics and think-tank members who formulate the basis of Mr Corbyn’s economic and social policy agenda.” Many of them had essays included in McDonnell’s book. There is an excellent account of this group of people written for The Guardian, called “The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism”. It documents the academics, activists and policy makers; and the organisations they’ve set up or influenced, like the New Economic Foundation, Novara Media, openDemocracy, Stir to Action, Preston City Council, and Common Wealth. It’s easy to see their influence on the Labour Party in the excellent Labour Party political broadcasts which are clear explanations of their economic policy and what the policy’s benefits will be for both individual and community.

The author of the Guardian article, Andy Beckett, calls this a “a transatlantic movement”, and he’s right to. The contours of the Corbyn revolution extend to and cross over with similar contours in the United States. He notes, for example, that the policy requiring businesses to be at least part employee owned was, following Corbyn, “adopted by the US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.”

[4] Bernie Sanders

Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign has had long-lasting effect. Notable are the two important groups set up by former leadership, volunteers, staffers and supporters of the presidential campaign: that is, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats. The two groups have been working together to systematically attempt to takeover the Democratic Party by running “a unified campaign to replace every corporate-backed member of Congress”.

For the 2018 Congress elections they endorsed 79 candidates, 26 of those winning their respective primary elections, and seven winning the general election. One of those seven was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC.

Their process was as follows: they would identify electorates which they thought were winnable, make a call-out for people to nominate candidates, select appropriate applicants, then support them in their run, first for Democratic candidate in the primaries, and then in their bid for Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez, for example, was nominated for a Brand New Congress candidacy in the Bronx by her brother. She was selected from amongst those nominated and then stood for election for the Democratic primary. She was the first person to challenge the incumbent, Joe Crowley, the Democratic Caucus Chair, since 2004. As we know, she beat him, and – given the Bronx is a safe Democrat seat – she was easily elected to Congress.

This network of radical democrats is working on the idea of a Green New Deal, as endorsed and advocated for by AOC. The Green New Deal remains more of a notion than a concrete proposal, but important parts of it are being influenced by Beckett’s “new left economists”.

Following the UK Labour Party, Sanders has announced, for instance, that his Green New Deal would include nationalising the energy grid. Again – this won’t be just a traditional nationalisation, but one which focuses on “bottom-up organizing and including all people in decision-making”. Around $2 trillion will be spent on converting the grid to renewable energy. The same principles will be applied to the nationalisation of other utilities too – this goes from public broadband building projects, to health, to housing.

As mentioned, in addition, Sanders has committed to the same employee-ownership plan – 10% of every corporation owned by employees – as Corbyn has, in a move titled by the policy’s authors as, “A Cross-Atlantic Plan to Break Capital’s Control”.

These policies, like the Corbyn program, are breathtaking. And it isn’t just Sanders who stands for a Green New Deal, but Elizabeth Warren too. She is another impressive person, one of the few who stood up to the Obama administration’s strong support for financial institutions and an advocate, of great importance, for anti-monopoly policies.

In the race to be Democratic candidate for the US election next year, it is now between Sanders, Warren, and Joe Biden. Biden remains the favourite, but is not an attractive candidate in an election against Trump. He has made “a series of gaffes”, for example at a town hall meeting a month or two ago, he “confused then-UK prime minister Theresa May with both Margaret Thatcher and German chancellor Angela Merkel.”

“At the same event, he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”, before quickly adding: “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids, no, I really mean it, but think how we think about it.””

His initial popularity is due to the name recognition he enjoys, but it’s expected that as voters become familiar with the other candidates, he’ll drop off.

As such, it appears likely a Green New Deal candidate will face Trump next year – either Sanders or Warren.

[5] The upshot

If a Green New Deal candidate wins, with Corbyn already elected, we will have a transatlantic bloc committed to massive investment in greening our energy systems; to ensuring worker rights; to transferring ownership of their employer to employees; and to nationalising critical infrastructure, in the form of Public Service Mutuals, in a bid to realise Universal Basic Services.

This bloc already has a history together and is interlinked with overlapping personnel. It is likely they will work closely, on an internationalist basis, to realise common policy goals.

It is an incredible prospect – the prospect of an internationally coordinated, radical response to global problems regarding ecological destruction and wealth inequality.

We have had the technological capacity to do what is necessary for a while; and now, the political will may also, finally, be coming online.

[6] What about Australia?

Australia has always lagged somewhat behind developments internationally, and unfortunately it looks as if the same is the case here. Bill Shorten lost the election on a technocratic, “don’t rock the boat” agenda. There was no vision for a Just Transition; a Green New Deal; large-scale employee ownership; nor Universal Basic Service provision. While the UK Labour Party and the US Democrats have had internal movements for a progressive economic and environmental agenda, as we’ve discussed, there is no obvious analogue for the Australian Labor Party. I needn’t detail any of the ways Anthony Albanese has already been an apologist to the Liberal’s reactionary politics.

With one or two exceptions, perhaps, the Australian Labor Party is not at all prepared for the policy platform it must propose for the next election if we are at all serious about ecological collapse.

Fortunately, it is not far-fetched to suggest that if the US and UK turn to radical left economics, Australia will be forced to follow their lead. The question is more how those policies will be implemented, not whether they will be.

The task for us, now, is designing the concrete radical policies for distributing ownership and greening the economy which we want to see implemented. A primary focus must be put on a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples, which recognises their sovereignty and the jurisdictional rights which flow therefrom.

It is this task of designing the concrete policies, I believe, we now need to be turning our focus to in the New Economy Movement.

As an article in the Financial Times recently declared: “The future belongs to the left, not the right”.

It’s up to us what kind of left it will be. It is about time, too.

 

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