The Parliamentary Road to Capitalism

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I’ve stayed away from the media circus leading up to the latest General Election, but yesterday I watched Andrew Marr interviewing, in turn, Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Minister for State and Security; Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party; and John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Although educated at a private school that his accent doesn’t reveal, Brandon Lewis is very much the butcher’s boy of the Conservative Party, and definitely not a part of the Old Boys network. Yet his amiable chat with the Cambridge-educated Marr was like two former Etonians having a light ribbing down the local gastro pub. Marr raised a few contradictions between what the Conservative party is saying about Brexit and what is actually possible, and Lewis repeatedly answered with the response that ‘I don’t agree with your assessment.’ Marr allowed him to get away with this again and again. He never asked Lewis about, for instance, his statement to the House of Commons in February 2014, when he was Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the future Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Services. The debate was about fire sprinklers, and Lewis said:

‘We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation. The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building — something we want to encourage — so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.’

Then Marr moved onto Sturgeon. I think it would be wrong to describe his constant interrupting of her and his grilling of the SNP’s record as ‘sexist’, as the cretins on social media are no doubt doing as I write. It was, quite openly, politically motivated. However many times she tried to explain that the position in which the SNP might find itself with regard to Brexit in the unlikely but possible eventuality of a Labour minority government is the result of the Conservative Government holding the referendum, Marr simply wasn’t interested, and just kept on repeating the same accusation.

That this had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the political bias of the BBC was and even clearer by the next interview. I don’t think McDonnell was allowed to get more than three words into his attempts at an answer to the scattergun of questions Marr fired at him, but what struck me most was his complete inability to wrestle the conversation over to his ends — which presumably is why he appeared on the show in the first place. The first thing you learn about debating is that he (or she) who asks the questions has the power. Yet our John sat there like a dead fish meekly responding to every shitty, insinuating thing Marr chose to throw at him.

I see that the latest idiocy doing the rounds of social media is that John McDonnell has an MA in Economics whereas George Osborne, Cameron’s Chancellor, had a BA in Modern History. In fact, McDonnell has an MA in Politics and Sociology, but that’s irrelevant. Osborne’s economic policy was set by his SPAD and Chief of Staff, Rupert Harrison, who had a PhD in Economics from UCL and, before he left in 2014 to be Portfolio Manager at BlackRock, was one of the most powerful people in Britain you’d never heard of.

But even without this knowledge of economic theory (and only someone without an MA in economics could think it means anything special), McDonnell was completely unable to explain why, once the private contracts with the NHS have expired, it would be possible to nationalise it without having to buy it back and was therefore not going to cost the country the zillions of pounds Neo-liberal economists say it will. How a Labour Government would do that under EU law is another question, but obviously not one the pro-Second Referendum McDonnell is going to raise.

The ‘interview’ — if you could call this turkey shoot that — ended with a final gesture of contempt when, inevitably, Marr brought up the accusation that has dominated this election, that Labour is anti-Semitic. Marr, of course, had not asked Lewis anything equivalent about the Conservative Government’s record on Windrush, or all the myriad other examples of its blatant racism. And yet, despite the accusation of anti-Semitism being as inevitable as the BBC’s Conservative bias, McDonnell had no other, and no better response than Oh Jeremy Corbyn did at the so-called ‘debate’ with Boris Johnson. The only difference was that McDonnell’s abjection was even greater. I thought at one moment that he was going to get down on his knees, like the good Catholic he is, and beg forgiveness of the murderers of Jesus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more abject display of impotence and surrender on national TV. Marr, of course, loved it, and his contempt for McDonnell was as absolute as I imagine every viewer watching felt too.

I don’t know who, if anyone, is advising the Labour Party on appearances like this. Media is meant to be the forte of its supposedly media-savvy youthful support. But this was a car crash up there with Corbyn’s interrogation by Andrew Neil and Diane Abbott’s interview on LBC about police numbers. It wouldn’t matter that much. The closer I get to them the more I’m amazed at the quality of character of the people in politics. They’re all crooks, obviously; but what surprises me is that they’re utterly incompetent crooks. This, remember, is the future Prime Minister, Chancellor and Home Secretary that is meant to stand up to and take on the British establishment, the most vicious press in the Western World, and the financial might of the City of London, and they can’t even stand up to a bunch of bitter old Tory journalists. It’s beyond absurd.

But the show wasn’t a complete waste of time. Before these interviews there was a discussion between John Curtice, a Professor of politics and leading pollster, Sarah Vine, a journalist for the Daily Mail, and Gloria De Piero, a journalist and Labour MP, and an interesting exchange occurred between them. Piero was saying that if Labour loses this election, the party would have to look at whether it had turned its back on its working-class electoral base, and Curtice responded:

— ‘But you are no longer a working-class party; you’re a party of young people.’

The other thing was that, at the beginning of his grilling of John McDonnell, Marr — who in his youth was known as ‘Red Andy’ for handing out copies of Mao’s Little Red Book at Cambridge — asked him:

— ‘If you become Chancellor of the Exchequer later next week, do you want to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist economy or not?’

McDonnell grinned and leaned back as if someone had asked him if he’d been having it off with the local barmaid, and replied:

— ‘I want to transform our economy. I want to make sure our economy works for everybody.’

At which Marr interjected:

— ‘Does that mean overthrowing capitalism?’

— ‘No, it means transforming capitalism into a new form. And I think there’s a real debate now that’s happening not just here but across Europe and America itself about how our economy is failing the vast majority of our people.’

Marr persisted:

— ‘So you no longer want to overthrow capitalism?’

— ‘I think we can transform our economic system.’

— ‘You’ve gone soft?’

— ‘No, I haven’t. I think we can transform it in a way that meets the objectives of having a much more equal, more socially just economy, but also a much more successful one. And the big thing now, I have to say – I’ve almost devoted my life to it now – is the existential threat of climate change. We have to change our economy to enable us to meet that challenge.’

Now, you may say that, of course, someone proposing to be Britain’s future Chancellor of the Exchequer isn’t going to go on national TV and declare his intentions to ‘overthrow capitalism’, as Marr phrased it. But as far as I’m aware, McDonnell has never claimed that anywhere at any time. That claim has exclusively been made by the right-wing press, and sometimes by the liberal press. So I don’t think that argument stands.

It’s interesting, too, that Marr’s posing of the question deliberately phrased it in these mocking terms. If, in another lifetime, Labour formed a Government and instigated a socialist economy, it wouldn’t be ‘overthrowing’ capitalism; it would be carrying our legislative change with a democratic mandate from the British people. Of course, that’s never going to happen, and the Labour Party isn’t promising anything of the kind; but the fact that Marr and his fellow journalists can only even imagine such an eventuality in terms of an ‘overthrow’ shows just what an unassailable sacred cow capitalism is. Even imagining, for the sake of mockery, a socialists alternative has to be done in terms of revolutionary insurrection. And they’re right. The political and media establishment, to say nothing of the civil service, the police and the armed forces, would never permit a Parliamentary road to socialism to open in this country. That such a road could ever exist is — as Marr very precisely phrases it in his mocking question — a mockery.

But this is all speculation anyway. McDonnell answered the question very clearly. Labour is not a socialist party, and has no intention of instigating a socialist economy. It is, at best, a revisionist party, which has chosen to tie its Parliamentary aspirations to the social democrat bandwagon of capitalism with a human face. We’ve seen how that has turned out many times before across Europe. Talk about capitalism as ‘the best of all possible worlds’ to those living in the developing countries on whose plundering and military subjugation this happy illusion of the Western middle classes rests. Or closer to home, tell the villages of Northern England decimated by the liberalism of the European Union and the so-called ‘free market’ about the benefits of a reformed capitalism.

It’s indicative that McDonnell, when pushed to describe exactly what this ‘transformed’ capitalism will be, falls back not on — for example — the re-industrialisation of the North from where he comes but on the far more trendy, youthful and urban cause of climate change so popular in the South. Labour has been quick to sign up to the Green New Deal to which Extinction Rebellion has put its name, and we know what that means. A transformation of capitalism, yes, but in the sense of the expansion of its markets, its increased consumption of other countries’ resources, the military intervention of new Western (and European Union) armies in those countries that resist, and the overthrow not of capitalism, but of those left-wing governments in Brazil and Bolivia and Venezuela that sign up to the Third Industrial Revolution.

I can understand that kids brought up on 40 years of Neo-liberalism don’t understand that socialism is, first and foremost, an economic system, and not the conservative ideology of identity politics and political correctness they’ve been brought up on. So I can understand how, under the propaganda of Labour ideologues like Paul Mason and Owen Jones and Aaron Bastani they might imagine the Labour Government described in the 2019 Party Manifesto — which bears almost no relation to the Labour Party in power — is socialist. But as the Labour Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has made very clear in this interview, it is nothing of the kind.

You can’t be capitalist and socialist at the same time. And as history is showing us right up to the present moment, you can’t reform capitalism. You can only, ever, overthrow it. And Parliamentary elections don’t allow overthrowing.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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