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UK: Corbyn presents his programme - to the bosses

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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”.

It was certainly about time Labour set out its industrial strategy. And it does include several promises, repeated from Labour’s 2017 manifesto, that need to be an important part of it. These include bringing public service contracts back in-house, creating a National Education Service, upgrading our infrastructure, regenerating the de-industrialised areas and building houses.

Vital as these all are, what is left unclear, beyond repeating that this investment must go to firms here in Britain, is how these goals are to be reached. There is little or nothing about public or social ownership, let alone renationalisation. Perhaps this is no surprise in a speech to the Engineering Employers' Federation.

So why did Jeremy choose to announce his strategy to the EEF of all people? Quite simply because he expects to rely on Britain’s capitalists, not its workers, to carry it out. That is why there is little or nothing socialist about it. Nor is it any wonder that he then gently told the employers that only the richest of them will have to pay a “little more” tax.

Instead of taxing the big corporations, the money for large scale investment in industry, infrastructure and training a skilled workforce, will come from borrowing on the international money markets. 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. And even if interest rates are low today, who can guarantee they will stay so?

Economic Nationalism
The related theme, throughout Corbyn’s speech, was economic nationalism and collaboration with British employers “to help industry compete on the world stage”. Of course, Corbyn strongly denied 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 he went on: “Nobody’s ever said I have something in common with Donald Trump before. It’s news to both of us, I suspect.”

We in Red Flag think “the comrade doth protest too much”. In fact, the “Build British-Buy British” theme runs like a red-white-and blue thread through the whole speech. Corbyn says a Labour government would ensure the state used “more of its own money to buy here in Britain”. He says that,“... 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” as a system. Much easier to target "globalisation". Well, now we know Donald Trump can play at that game, too.

After a decade that has seen not only stagnation and increasing rivalry between the big powers but also the rise of a virulent nationalism in the USA, Europe and, indeed, in China and Russia too, the anti-globalisation narrative is not radical or left at all. In fact, it plays straight into the hands of the right, especially when you start to pander to the dangers of immigrant “cheap” labour taking “our jobs”.

Note that in Corbyn’s speech there was not even the mildest criticism of British industrialists; the home grown CEOs who closed their factories, who pressed for the Tories' de-nationalisation and closure programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention the anti-union laws that have crippled effective defence of jobs and wage levels. It was British companies, after all, that richly funded Thatcher and Major to inflict all this on us. Instead, for Corbyn, the problem is that, “the rise of finance is linked to the demise of industry”.
Taking the AES out of mothballs
This is the old thesis of the Labour Left and the Communist Party, dating back to Tony Benn's 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, they insisted, in Russia). Such policies may have had a certain short-term credibility in the mid 1970s but they rapidly collapsed as capitalism moved into a new period of crises and the neoliberal onslaught began.

The AES saw banking and finance as the real problem. Industrial capital, by contrast, was potentially patriotic, especially in “partnership” with the state, that is to say when given huge subsidies. Under a Labour government's "planning" it would be 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 the country to compete on the world market. All this will then generate well paid jobs and secure the goodwill and cooperation of the bosses towards a Labour government. In this context, Corbyn holds out the prospect of lucrative contracts for British industries and complains that, under the Tories, orders for 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 that this is protectionism, that is its inescapable logic.

Presenting Labour’s industrial strategy to a gathering of engineering bosses is nothing less than an appeal for a new social contract between capital and labour. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell will not even contemplate imposing on the rich and the big corporations the level of taxation that would be needed to fund a serious state investement programme. They dare not talk of recouping the trillions of pounds the banks were given in 2008-10. That means the burden of taxation will continue to weigh on individual incomes. In other words, the many will be paying well over the odds to fund the investments from which the few will benefit in terms of higher productivity, lower costs and fatter profits.

The litmus test: internationalism

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 implied, are undercutting our 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 would seek with the EU.

In this context, to complain that, “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” has a distinctly dog whistle character, recalling Gordon Brown’s "British jobs for British workers".

A socialist policy starts by recognising that all workers are equal, all workers, migrant or native, have the right to work at a living wage, and that we need to unite to fight the bosses and create a society of abundance, not just in Britain but in Europe and around the world. An industrial strategy here must reach out to workers abroad. Abandoning free movement within Europe and complaining about cheap labour, whether in Europe or in China, is disastrous. It plays right into the hands of Trump and the would-be British Trumps.

Corbyn’s speech is no cause for celebration, it hands over rebuilding Britain to British capitalists, to whom it offers state support, and it 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.

It is not 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, however, is a programme of action for a Labour government that dares to address the question of who owns “Britain’s” industries. It needs to take on the bosses and nationalise their industries if we want to build houses and hospitals, not warships.

We need not just to complain about the banks but to 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, and not leave it to be announced to the Engineering Employers for their approval.