Embracing automation, shortening the working week, collaborating with the private sector and reducing inequality are just some of the ideas being discussed by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell.
Beckett’s post-election autopsy pinned defeat, among other reasons, on Miliband’s failure to challenge the myth that Labour caused the 2008 financial crash. Cameron has solidified the narrative in the public’s mind with his repeated attacks on Labour’s financial credibility. However, by giving left-leaning intellectuals a platform in his series of public talks, John McDonnell is opening up a completely new discourse around economics and it is time to get excited.
Although bound by their anti-austerity and pro-market beliefs, each economist is bringing their own unique specialism to the table.
Mariana Mazzucato began the series last week, arguing for state investment in innovation that made her book, The Entrepreneurial State, such a compelling read. Seeing the state as an impediment to innovation is, in her view, pure ideology, especially when tech giants like Apple relied so heavily on state money to get off the ground. This isn’t an attack on the private sector; Mazzucato believes it should work in harmony with the state. Where risks are high - for example, when investing in climate solutions - state funding must fill in the gaps that the typically cautious private sector leaves behind. Otherwise we’ll never achieve our most pressing collective goals.
In tomorrow’s talk, “Technology and the Future World of Work”, Bria, Srnicek and Susskind will imagine the radical potential of technology, liberating us from what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. Embracing automation and the internet of things (the interconnectivity between the physical and virtual realms) as progress towards a more efficient society will free us from long hours of unrewarding labour.
In March the debate turns to the pressing economics of inequality. Joseph Stiglitz is an unsurprising participant, ever since the crash he’s been one of neoliberalism’s most outspoken critics, and yet this still represents a major coup for McDonnell. No one else in the lecture series, or in Labour’s Economic Advisory Committee for that matter, boasts a CV that includes Nobel Laureate and former chief economist for the World Bank. Where Thomas Piketty, author of Capital, and fellow member of the advisory committee, sees inequality as inherent to capitalism, Stiglitz believes it’s reversible through reform. To him, inequality isn’t just a moral blotch on our culture, it’s also bad news for our collective growth. If Labour used his clout to infuse that idea with some much-needed respectability, voting selfishly could cease to make sense.
Of all the lectures, the last, “Framing the Economic Narrative”, contains the lesson Labour needs to pay close attention to. Simon Wren-Lewis keenly observes the way economics and politics intersect. He views austerity as a trap for the left “as long as they refuse to challenge it”. The thinking goes: if you accept that cuts should happen, it’s a position of weakness to then argue over who's targeted. Joining him is economic policy advisor, Ann Pettifor, who understands better than most that progressive economic ideas mean nothing without the credible politicians to enforce them.
If Labour is to gain a firm grip on the economy again, this series is a great start.
Callum Towler, The Independent, 2nd February 2016