McDonnell’s argument was bold in ambition and scope. Promising what he described as a ‘modern socialist agenda’, he set out a vision for a fundamental rebalancing of the British economy, claiming that ‘The Chancellor is stuck in the past. Its time to look to the future; socialism with an Ipad.’
So what does this ‘Socialism with an Ipad’ mean beyond the slogan? Well, McDonnell’s speech advocated the central economic argument of what has come to known as ‘Corbynomics’, but with a new and innovative approach. Instead of constructing the debate, as Corbyn did throughout the leadership campaign, in ‘anti-austerity’ terms, McDonnell elevated the scale of Labour’s ambition above simply undoing the Osbourne cuts, and towards a root and branch restructuring of the economy. A restructuring that, as the Ipad suggests, will be based around technological innovation and capital investment, with perhaps the most eye-catching pledge being to set national infrastructure spending at 3.5%, and force companies to invest in innovation.
This is tied to the broader ‘Corbynonmic’ approach to the British economy; to rebalance the economy away form overreliance on finance, and towards technological and industrial niches. Echoing Corbyn’s Conference overtures to the self-employed, McDonnell attempted to claim the mantle of innovation and entrepreneurialism for the Labour Party. This is based on soley on economic calaculations; the self-employed make up an ever-icnreasing percentage of the electorate, and it is clear that Corbyn-McDonnell want to reap the rewards.
Indeed, this plays into the real narrative at work here; trying to sell socialism to the electorate as ‘modern’. Corbyn, McDonnell and the wider left have long since been written off my rivals as backward-looking ‘dinosaurs’, who hark back to the economic settlement of the 1970s. with the promise of ‘Socialism with an Ipad’, McDonnell is clearly attempting to a project to construct a new economic paradigm, in which the word ‘socialism’ is associated with a sense of future economic opportunity, as opposed to the Winter of Discontent and the past.
It is a well-worn path; all of Labour’s major electoral successes have come with an economic offer based on the future; from Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’, to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s ‘New Deal’ agenda. In an economically conservative (but fiscally radical) Britain, the Labour party can only win elections when it looks to the future; something that for all his attempts, Ed Miliband sadly failed to do.
So ‘Socialism with an Ipad’, is in a sense nothing new; it is part of the great Labour tradition of attempting to sell centre-left economic policy as modern and exciting. The challenge now is whether this can be communicated to a public who don’t trust Labour on the economy, and tend to associate its new leadership with the past, rather than the future. The ill-advised soundbyte of ‘Socialism with an Ipad’ suggests that Labour has a long way to go to sell this message but, hearteningly for all sides of the party, it suggests that the ideas are very much beginning to take shape.