The new shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told us to expect him to sound like a mild bank manager when he gave his speech today. He ended up sounding like he was auditioning for the remake of Citizen Smith. How many bank managers end their speech by actually scripting a Wolfie-style yawp of ‘Solidarity!’? Perhaps this is all mild and relatively sane by McDonnell’s standards: if so, it offers us an interesting glimpse of the madness which now has the Labour party in its grip.
His speech was supposed to be all nuance, policy reviews and open debate but strip that away and you’re left with some of the most deranged, dangerous nonsense ever spouted from the floor of a Labour party conference. I was never a fan of Ed Balls, but he understood the art of economic combat better than anyone in the Commons and knew that Labour had to win an election. By contrast, McDonnell is a fantasy shadow chancellor fighting battles that exist chiefly in his head. He referred to something called the ‘corporate welfare system’, which – of course – doesn’t exist. He vowed to cut ‘use of taxpayers’ money subsidising poverty paying bosses’ which doesn’t exist either. He threatened to impose rent controls, a system that has crippled rental markets in the cities where it is tried.
We heard again about his demented plan for ‘people’s quantitative easing’ – or, to adopt his new euphemism, using ‘active monetary policy to stimulate demand where necessary’. His Big Brother would be itching to issue more instructions to employers: the Business Department would enforce ‘standards at work for all employees’ – a hint at massive re-regulation. He admitted that ‘our radicalism, it comes with a burden’. You bet. The same was true for François Hollande: the burden of his radicalism was paid for by those who could least afford it.
All this is, as McDonnell put it, a ‘radical departure’ from the Blair-era government which he now denounces as ‘neoliberalism’. This word is only ever used by hard-left ideologues. He wants to ‘prove to the British people we can run the economy better than the rich elite that runs it now’ – again, from Chile to Sweden, references to ‘rich elite’ are a key marker of the populists from left (and right) who are on the rise right now. Except abroad, the elite-hating populists rose via new parties. In Britain, they’ve risen by capturing an old party.
Just in case anyone missed McDonnell’s hints, he ended his speech saying ‘as socialists’ – yes, the S-word – he will ‘display our competence with our compassion’. The word ‘socialist’ and the word ‘competence’ are not ones that easily fit together – as the British learned to their cost in the 1970s. So McDonnell’s speech can be summarised in one sentence: do you fancy giving the 1970s another try? I doubt he’ll be around come polling day to find out.