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Playing by the Rules

Anneliese Dodds' speech was not as bad as advertised – but it demonstrated the fundamental problem with Labour's new leadership: it is more concerned with appearing respectable to elites than with representing popular interests.

Who’d be a Labour shadow chancellor? Possibly the most thankless job in British politics, it usually involves watching on as your Tory counterparts tear chunks out of the social safety net and miss whatever fiscal targets they set themselves, only for them to be hailed by the bulk of the media—regardless of their actual track record in office—as the gold standard for economic competence and responsibility.

Labour’s current shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, no doubt knows the feeling. Her opposite number, Rishi Sunak, still has relatively high personal approval ratings despite the government’s abysmal handling of the pandemic – exacerbated by his refusal to raise Britain’s parsimonious levels of statutory sick pay (a fifth of workers who’ve had to self-isolate reported receiving no sick pay at all) and huge gaps in the furlough scheme.

Nevertheless, Dodds this week made her first major intervention on economic policy by delivering this year’s Mais lecture. In her address on Wednesday, she finally began to flesh out Labour’s post-Corbyn approach; perhaps inevitably, given the general tenor of Keir Starmer’s leadership thus far, there was a heavy emphasis on ‘responsibility’ and on ‘delivering value for money for the British people’ in contrast to the ‘waste and mismanagement’ of the current government.

Among the more headline-grabbing proposals Dodds made in her speech was a commitment to abide by a ‘fiscal anchor’—as proposed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies—and to submit a future Labour government’s spending to regular scrutiny by the National Audit Office (NAO). There would, Dodds said, be an annual report from the Comptroller and Auditor General assessing the ‘effectiveness’ of that government’s spending, based on the NAO’s findings.

All this was dutifully written up in the Financial Times as an abandonment of the supposedly ‘hard left’ economic policies of the Corbyn era—which was no doubt the sort of reception it was intended to elicit from the business press—while also prompting a scornful reaction from much of the Labour Left on social media. However, it isn’t a world away from what John McDonnell, Dodds’s former boss, was trying to achieve with his fiscal credibility rule.

Of course, this approach of embracing more conservative aspects of Corbyn’s legacy while steering clear of more radical aspects is by now familiar. In this instance, to reassure capital about the limits of Labour’s intentions, and demonstrate responsibility, more power of oversight was to be handed to technocrats. This theme endured through the sections on Central Bank independence, the contrast between “electoral” and “economic” considerations, and the exultation of the rule of law in contracts between state and private providers.

Britain’s economic “reputation should never again be threatened for political purposes,” Dodds argued – which, of course, raises the question of where that reputation arises from in the first instance. This country was plenty reputable with business interests when it was deliberately driving down living standards and embarking on the greatest programme of deindustrialisation in the Developed World. Surely, it is its reputation amongst the public that Labour should concern itself with most – and yet this speech was an archetype of the liberal attempt to separate economics from politics, which is really about insulating it from popular concerns.

The substance of what was being proposed was, however, somewhat different to the headline in the Financial Times. Dodds signalled that Labour remained committed to a more accommodative fiscal stance than the Tories. She argued that, contrary to the general pattern since 2008, there should in future be less reliance on monetary policy and more on fiscal policy; the inverse, she said, had in practice tended to ‘exacerbate inequality and concentrate economic gains in the hands of those who were already asset-rich’.

Dodds did pledge to abide by a ‘responsible fiscal framework’ over the longer term, with a view to balancing day-to-day government spending over the course of an economic cycle. Even here, though, she left herself some room for manoeuvre: a future Labour government would still be free to increase capital spending, while an exception to the rule would allow that government to delay its fiscal targets in the event of a crisis.

The purpose of all this, ironically, is more about politics than economics. The signalling is consistent with the rest of Keir Starmer’s leadership: a safe pair of hands implementing sensible reforms, not doing anything too rash. It is unlikely that too many voters will follow the ins and outs of Labour’s manoeuvring on economic policy, but it’s not aimed at them – the objective is to reassure capital and, probably more importantly, the media.

But this signalling risks reinforcing an ideological framing which, if anything, harms Labour’s prospects. The fact that Labour is still trying to prove its bona fides on fiscal restraint, in the middle of a pandemic which has made a mockery of any and all spending targets, indicates a deferential mindset and an entrenched lack of self-confidence. Though the Corbyn years saw Labour make real progress on challenging fallacious economic narratives—at long last—this progress risks being squandered where instead it should be built on.

Also inadequate is the stress on Tory ‘waste and mismanagement’, which doesn’t come close to encapsulating its actual corruption and mendacity. For all the current Labour leadership’s recent talk about acting responsibly in the ‘national interest’, in the real world, class interests still prevail. While showering its friends with public cash, the Johnson government has been careful to avoid providing workers with any assistance that it won’t be able to rapidly snatch back once the worst of the current crisis is over.

Of course, the deck is stacked heavily against Labour when it comes to economics. What Simon Wren-Lewis calls ‘mediamacro’ remains remarkably resilient, despite the multiple disasters of austerity and the wreckage left in its wake. Indeed, as Dodds noted in her lecture, even the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have belatedly acknowledged—from a staunchly pro-capitalist perspective—that their previous emphasis on spending cuts was misguided.

Nevertheless, one of the most important lessons from the Corbyn years is that Labour does have the capability to change the political and economic conversation—even operating, as it does, in a hugely unfavourable media landscape—if it can muster the self-belief and the political will to do so. Whether either still exists under its current leadership remains to be seen.

Jeremy Corbyn was widely ridiculed when he claimed to have ‘won the argument’ on austerity. It may have been an overstatement, but it was by no means groundless. The pandemic has again laid bare Britain’s inequities and the myriad failings of its social safety net. If Keir Starmer aspires to lead an ambitious, reforming Labour government, he must not allow himself to be constrained by the received wisdom of its media. This speech, like much of what we’ve heard this past year, suggests the party intends to remain captive to precisely that kind of conservatism.