The shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, is in trouble again. Back in 2010, the Labour Member of Parliament for Hayes and Harlington caused a bit of a stir, when he suggested that he would be happy to go back in time to kill Margaret Thatcher – before she had a chance to implement her free market reforms in Great Britain. He later apologized.
Earlier this week, new footage of McDonnell has emerged. In 2014, it turns out, he was again joking about killing the former Prime Minister. Some people might dream about killing mass murderers, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. Not so with McDonnell who, like his boss, is much more interested in revisiting the battles of the 1980s than in finding solutions to the challenges of the new millennium.
Economists do not agree on many things, but they do agree on a few fundamentals, such as the law of supply and demand, and the role of incentives in shaping human behavior. What’s more, new areas of agreement emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, including the superiority of free trade over autarky, competition over central planning, and private over public ownership.
The most important question that faced the discipline of economics throughout much of the 20th century, in other words, was conclusively resolved – capitalism works (much) better than socialism. Listening to McDonnell and his Labour Party boss, Jeremy Corbyn, however, you would have thought that the collapse of the Soviet bloc never happened. Likewise, the two have ignored the more recent collapse of Venezuelan socialism and the ongoing misery in Cuba.
Speaking at the Oxford Union in 2013, Corbyn made a “moral” case for socialism, while bemoaning the supposed evils of capitalism. Two years later, he called for a common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. He also backed nationalization of the British gas industry, steel industry, electric grid, rail system, and called for an end to the privatization of the Royal Mail.
Corbyn, who entered parliament in 1983, and McDonnell, who was elected to the Greater London Council in 1981, are reliving the intellectual battles of their youth, when they opposed, without success, Thatcher’s efforts to “roll back the frontiers of the state.” That’s narcissistic and useless.
Few people are interested in helping Corbyn and McDonnell expiate their personal demons and atone for their “failure” to stop the Thatcher revolution. According to a new poll, Labour trails the Tories by 16 points. Last time that happened, Michael Foot was the leader of the Labour Party and Thatcher beat him in a landslide. To make matters worse, Corbyn lacks the confidence of three-quarters of the Labour Party’s Members of Parliament and faces a leadership challenge from a fellow parliamentarian, Owen Smith.
Similarly, the socialist ideas that Corbyn and McDonnell espouse are irrelevant to the present needs of ordinary Britons. The real question is not “how to revive socialism in Britain,” but “how to help the British people succeed in the global economy.” Consider the challenges ahead. Economic competition from the rest of the world will grow as billions of people in China and India acquire higher skills and are thus able to perform more sophisticated tasks. Robotics and artificial intelligence will put additional strain on the British labor market. Millions of people could see their jobs made redundant.
Socialists, like Corbyn and McDonnell, would, no doubt, prefer to see the labor force protected by import tariffs and heavy labor regulation, but neither of those two policies offers a long-term solution to the challenges of the future. Technological change will not stop at the water’s edge. Instead, millions of Britons will need to be retrained and their movement between different jobs facilitated by 21st century education and welfare systems.
Where are Corbyn’s ideas concerning the reform of Britain’s education system, which may have met the needs of the Industrial Revolution, but cannot deal with the challenges of a robotics age? There are none, for Corbyn is more interested in pandering to the teachers’ unions, which find change threatening. Where are McDonnell’s ideas on reforming the welfare state, which may have helped to alleviate poverty in a post-war Britain, but which has become very costly and which breeds a sense of entitlement? If anything, McDonnell’s proposals would increase both.
Great Britain, like other mature Western democracies, needs a center-left party that is compassionate toward the worker, but also understands the workings of a global economy in the 21st century. Corbyn and McDonnell have plenty of the former, but little of the latter.