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Is Corbynomics a return to the socialist past or a vision of the progressive future?

Jeremy Corbyn's economic programme isn't about taking us back to the past, but embracing the challenges of today.

Peter Bloom
17 October 2016
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Jeremy Corbyn, by David Holt.

After months of a very public civil war and heated campaigning,  Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Labour leader with an even greater democratic mandate. His victory signals a potentially radically new direction for the party. Yet is this a return to an unelectable socialist past or a the first step toward an exciting progressive future?

In this spirit, Corbyn last month introduced a “10 point vision for Britain” that promises to “rebuild and transform” the country. Specifically, it promises full employment, homes for all, security at work, a renationalized NHS, free education, progressive taxes, and end to excess pay to executives and reduce economic inequality.

These ideas are quite modest when compared to social democratic programs throughout much of northern Europe. Free childcare, protected workers’ rights and strong social safety net are far from radical outside the UK.

Nevertheless, this so-called “Corbynomics” offers a profoundly different vision of society and the purpose of government than what has been advocated by either the Conservatives or New Labour. It updates a once cherished ideal that ‘freedom from want’ is necessary to ensuring personal dignity, individual freedom and collective democracy.

It is an economic and social commitment to equality and public welfare that resuscitates 20th century social democratic ideals for the new millennium. It is a full scale effort to once again put these values at the heart of economic and social policy in the 21st century.

The specifics of this agenda makes clear that Corbynomics is much more than a standard plan to improve economic growth or reduce the debt. The offer of free childcare eases the financial hardship of having a family while giving children from all backgrounds a shared social starting point. The commitment to stronger worker’s rights reduces the anxiety caused by precarious employment and returns to employees a real democratic voice within a rapidly changing economy. The renationalization of the railways reflects how essential “services” like transportation should once again prioritize people over profits.

Yet it is also a updating of these ideals for meeting modern challenges almost wholly unimaginable in the past. The bold “green economy” initiative recognizes the looming threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it presents for transforming our energy usage and economy. The pledge to end “aggressive wars” speaks to a new foreign policy that emphasizes shared development and international solidarity to combat corporate globalization, rising xenophobia and perpetual international conflicts over power and resources.

Corbynomics is therefore a fundamental rethinking of contemporary economic “truths” and ideologies. It wants to replace the “neo-liberal” consensus that has been in place since Thatcher and Reagan. It proposes a social democratic solution for ending “boom and bust” economic cycles. The goal is to unite these old and new socialist principles with the creation of a sustainable progressive economy.

Shadow Chancellor John Mcdonnell has been the public face of these efforts to challenge outdated  “Westminster dominated views”. He has been a forceful advocate for renewed socialist policies like “people’s quantitative easing” that would require the Bank of England to produce money for needed public investment. He has also spearheaded the “New Economics” lecture series that aims to bring fresh perspectives from top economists to citizens across the country.

These measures are meant to infuse government with a reinvigorated sense of socialist experimentation. Corbynomics is not merely a set of dry policy prescriptions. Instead, it is trying to give public policy the same excitement and innovation that is presently usually associated with the marketplace.

The immediate hope is that “Corbynomics” can win over those dissatisfied with austerity and Tory rule and deliver an eventual Labour victory in the general election. By providing a coherent and positive alternative to both new Labour and the Conservatives, it has the potential to take advantage of the anti-establishment mood of many voters and direct it in a more progressive direction.The real challenge, though, is whether Corbyn and his supporters can shift the national “center ground”. The leftwing proposals of Corbyn continue to be seen by many as “too good to be true” – nice ideas but unaffordable. This is the exact opposite of Conservative policies such as the financial bailout and austerity that were presented as “undesirable” but “necessary”.

Corbynomics threatens to reverse this, highlighting public investment as essential to national survival and prosperity that is imperiled by radical “free market” thinking. It is a new story of economic and social progress. It is cuts not investment that is destroying Britain and it is neoliberalism that is endangering the welfare of nation and the majority of its population.

Crucial, in this respect, is showing that 20th century social democracy can be updated to meet 21st century challenges. That Corbynomics points the way to a better future and is not just nostalgia for a long since gone past.

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