Yes, Labour should try to abolish billionaires!

By Rick Parnet

“Those who pretend that a sound Labour policy can be pursued nationally or locally without making the rich poorer should find another party.” – George Lansbury MP, 1922

“If someone gave you £1 every ten seconds, it would take you more than 300 years to become a billionaire”, said Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in a recent speech. “Someone on the national minimum wage would have to work 69,000 years to be paid £1bn. And a newly qualified nurse would have to wait 50,000 years.”

“No one”, McDonnell concluded, “needs or deserves to have that much money. It is obscene.”

Yet confronted over these views in the last days of the election campaign, McDonnell retreated.

After Phones4u founder John Caudwell attacked McDonnell’s comments, McDonnell publicly invited him for a cup of tea. He went, and Radio 4 broadcast their conversation (listen to it here).

Caudwell made great play of the fact he pays his taxes and that he gives very large amounts to charity. He styles himself a “philanthropist”. He also said, at least at some points in the exchange, that he would not necessarily object to paying slightly higher tax. What he objected to was talk of abolishing billionaires, and left-wing Labour rhetoric in general, which “terrifies” him.

Not so long ago John McDonnell said he believed in abolishing capitalism. Abolishing billionaires, or pursuing policies with much the same effect, is a fairly modest social democratic policy.

To put this in context, two decades ago the UK had about twenty billionaires. Now it has about 150. (Estimates of the number vary.) When the capitalist crisis first hit a decade ago, the number of UK billionaires dipped from about 75 to about 45. It quickly rebounded and surged ahead.

Those 150 are a small fraction of the ultra-rich. Even before you get to the fundamental socialist question of who owns the means of producing wealth, a left-wing policy should target the tens of thousands of extremely rich people, also doing very nicely recently, and not just the tiny numbers of uber-rich. “Abolish multi-millionaires” is a better idea than “Abolish billionaires”.

Given that, how disappointing that McDonnell would not defend his previous statement. In his exchange with Caudwell, he said it didn’t matter whether there were billionaires or not, pretending that anti-billionaire statements had been made only by others in the Labour Party. What matters, he insisted, is that inequality decreases – which Caudwell also objected to.

How on earth can you decrease inequality, certainly significantly, without less going to the rich? Where does McDonnell think that the wealth for higher wages and more generous social provision will come from? In fact he repeatedly pivoted to the argument that the rich and corporations should pay more to fund a better life for the majority – but only “a little more”. So the idea seems to be that we should reduce inequality, but not radically.

McDonnell also insisted that he and Caudwell really agreed (to no avail), praised him repeatedly and more generally sang the praises of “entrepreneurs” and “wealth-creators”. He failed to even ask Caudwell how he plans to vote or what he pays his workforce. There was no hint of steel in his tone, nor of a socialist argument, even a gradualist, reformist one.

The effect of such an approach can only be to further confuse and dull workers’ class consciousness.

Caudwell did not sound unpleasant or seem personally hostile to McDonnell. It stood out all the more that he is clearly very hostile to the prospect of a Labour government. If Labour does win the election and its supporters expect everyone to get on in the common interest as McDonnell claims to expect, they are in a for a shock.

Whatever the election result, the labour movement should organise to take on the billionaire and aspirant-billionaires and, when we can, drive them out of existence.

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