Corbyn’s ‘Build it in Britain’ speech

JEREMY CORBYN’S Birmingham launch of Labour’s  ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign has been welcomed by many Labour Party members as offering a roadmap to radical reorganisation of the economy “in the interests of the many, not the few.”

Certainly it was about time Labour set out its industrial strategy. And there are certainly promises, repeated from Labour’s 2017 manifesto, that need to be an important part of it. These include commitments to bring public services contracts back in-house, create a National Education Service, upgrade our infrastructure, regenerate the de-industrialsed areas, build houses etc.

But these are not new nor is it clear, beyond the repeated theme that this investment must go to firms here in Britain, how these goals will be reached. There is little or nothing about public or social ownership, let alone renationalisation.

Although elements of this strategy had been trailed at the recent Unite conference, it is Britain’s capitalists, not its workers that Corbyn is relying on to carry it out. There is little or nothing socialist about it. No wonder then that he gently tells the employers that only the richest of them will have to pay a “little more” tax.

Instead of taxing the big corporations and banks, the money for large scale investment in industry, infrastructure and training a skilled workforce will come from borrowing on the international money markets (foreign capitalists). Ultimately, through the interest payments on these loans, it will come from the working and lower middle class taxpayer who already bears the main tax burden today.

Economic Nationalism

The related theme throughout Corbyn’s speech is economic nationalism and the  collaboration with British employers “to help industry compete on the world stage.” Of course Corbyn strongly denies this:

“It’s not economic nationalism, it’s good sense to invest in the skills that we’ve already got here and to improve those skills for the future,” and goes on; “Nobody’s ever said I have something in common with Donald Trump before. It’s news to both of us, I suspect.”

In fact the “Build British-Buy British” theme runs like a red-white-and blue thread through his whole speech. Corbyn says a Labour government would ensure the state used “more of its own money to buy here in Britain”, and adds  “… to ensure prosperity here, we must be supporting our industries, making sure that where possible the government is backing our industries and not merely overseeing their decline.”

He insists “We have plenty of capacity to build train carriages in the UK and yet repeatedly over recent years these contracts have been farmed out abroad, costing our economy crucial investment, jobs for workers and tax revenues”.

Once again anticipating the sting of criticism he protests;

“Are we promoting economic nationalism? No, what we’re promoting is an investment in manufacturing in this country.”

Corbyn believes that it is “the global economy free-for-all,” that is responsible for “the spread of insecure work, low pay and zero hours or temporary contracts …. causing stress, debt and despondency.” It is true that many on the left in the nineties and the new millennium thought that there was no need to talk about the evils of “capitalism.” Much easier to target globalisation. Well now we know Donald Trump can play at that game too.

After a decade of stagnation and increasing rivalry between the big powers which has also seen the rise of a virulent nationalism in the USA, Europe, China and Russia, the anti-globalisation narrative is neither radical nor leftwing. It plays straight into the hands of the right especially when you start to pander to the idea that British workers should be competing with “cheap labour abroad” to protect “our” jobs, rather than advocating the common interest of workers of all countries.

Note that in Corbyn’s speech there  is not  even the mildest criticism of  British industrialists – the homegrown bosses who closed their factories, who pressed for the Tories de-nationalisation and closure programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, the antiunion laws that have crippled effective defence of jobs and wage levels. Instead Corbyn deflects responsibility onto  “the rise of finance”.

Taking the AES out of mothballs

This is the old thesis of the Labour Left and the Communist Party, dating back to Tony’s Benn Alternative Economic Strategy of 1974-76 and before that the British Road to Socialism of the 1950s. Labour – even its leftwing – always saw building socialism as an isolated national task not an international one. The CP’s ideological foundation was the theory that socialism could be built in a single country (and indeed was being built in Russia). These policies had a certain short-term credibility in the mid 1970s though they rapidly collapsed as capitalism moved into a new period of crises and the neoliberal onslaught began.

The AES saw banking and finance are the real problem. Industrial capital, especially in “partnership” with (i.e. in receipt of handouts and “planning”  from the state), with a Labour government was potentially patriotic, willing, with a bit of encouragement, to “build in Britain”.

Today Corbyn’s  “industrial strategy” is based on a similar illusion; that promising state aid to British industrial capital could offset the worst consequences of Brexit, build on its “opportunities” and help it compete in the world market. In the process it will generate well paid jobs, and secure the goodwill and cooperation of the bosses towards a Labour government. In this contact Corbyn holds out the prospect to the bosses  point out that the state could offer lucrative contracts to British industries and complains that under the Tories orders for about train carriages and new warships were awarded to foreign companies. Presumably he would not object to British companies winning such contracts abroad.

Whilst he denies this is protectionism it has exactly this inescapable logic. Given Labour’s timid response to the collapse of Tata Steel, where they dared not call for its nationalisation outright, but only as a temporary takeover whilst a buyer could be found, we can imagine how weak compared to the AES of the 1970s.

Jermy Corbyn and John McDonnell will not even contemplate imposing the level of taxation on the rich and corporations that would fund a serious state investement programme. They dare not talk of recouping the trillions in handouts the banks received in 2008-10. That means the burden of taxation will continue to weigh on individual income, meaning the many will be paying well over the odds to fund investment that the few will benefit from in higher productivity, lower costs, and fatter profits.

The Litmus test: internationalism

Presenting Labour’s industrial strategy to gathering of engineering bosses constitutes an appeal for a new social contract between capital and labour.

Last but not least the theme of building British, building in Britain, has the implication of setting workers here against workers abroad who, it is suggested are undercutting their wages and jobs. This is doubly so when Labour has abandoned the goal of free movement of labour as part of  the free trade deal it is seeking with the EU:

“We’ve been told that it’s good, even advanced, for our country to manufacture less and less and to rely instead on cheap labour abroad to produce imports while we focus on the City of London and the financial sector.”

Complaining about cheap foreign labour without putting forward a positive international programme of struggle to raise the wages and living conditions of all workers is blinkered chauvinism.

In reality Corbyn’s speech is no cause for celebration, it hands over rebuilding Britain to British capitalist to whom it offers state support and its also includes an unprincipled concession to British nationalism, a mealy mouthed version of “British jobs for British workers. Whether or not it picks up some votes, it will strengthen the already growing forces of the right wing, not just of the Labour Party but of British society generally.

There is nothing surprising that many people support these ideas: they have been the stock in trade of leftwing social democracy and Stalinism for a long while even though they have been in mothballs for 40 years.

What we need instead is a programme of action for a Labour government that dares to address the question of who owns “Britain’s” industries. It needs to to take on the bosses and nationalize their industries if we want to we need to build houses and hospitals not warships. We need not just to complain about the banks but nationalise them and use their remarkable overview of the economy to create a system planned to meet human need. In short we need measures transitional to socialism that put the workers in control of the economy.

Immediately we need Labour to take the formulation of its policy away from shadow cabinet away days and think tanks, and into the democracy of the branches, affiliated unions  and national conference not leave it to be announced to the Engineering Employers for their approval.