“One asks oneself first why Davos exists at all,” wrote Jeremy Corbyn in early 2015, shortly before becoming Labour leader, “and second, whether it isn’t some grand conspiracy by big business to interact with significant political figures”.
The “conspiracy” that is the World Economic Forum convenes again at the end of this month. Thousands of politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, charity delegates, and celebrities will gather in the Swiss mountains to ruminate on the state of the world and, ostensibly, how to improve it.
This year, it will include none other than Corbyn’s right-hand man and anti-capitalist in chief, shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
The decision of this self-proclaimed Marxist (with his fiery aversion to the very concept of profit) to address business leaders is a blatant publicity stunt.
It’s as hypocritical a reversal as that of Donald Trump, who is attending despite campaigning against the so-called “party of Davos”. The anti-elitists, it would seem, can’t resist the prestige of being accepted by other elites.
Corbyn’s previous criticism of Davos is extreme and unfair. Rather than some murky hotbed of global collusion, the gathering is a networking opportunity, a structured mingle of chaos and connections, as the business, charity, and political worlds temporarily merge.
Indeed, with the ever-increasing number of attendees from not-for-profit organisations, a chief executive is more likely to bump into the head of Oxfam (ready with a lecture on tax evasion) than a government official.
Critics can justifiably accuse Davos of self-reinforcing establishmentism.
The bankers and business leaders come for access to the politicians and government officials they know will be there. The politicians come because it’s good for their street cred to have selfies taken with pop culture icons who their electorates have actually heard of.
And the celebrities come to show they’re more than vapid glitterati and want to use their wealth and fame to really “make a difference” to the world. Who can forget Leonardo DiCaprio’s lecture on climate change?
But that kind of setup is not a conspiracy, and nor is there anything shady about networking. Corporate responsibility is important, and there is clearly value in businesses working together with governments, NGOs, and social enterprises, to tackle global problems such as climate change, development, and international health issues.
Pragmatic politicians should be open to ideas from the business community, and ready to listen to their concerns.
McDonnell, however, is not a pragmatic politician. He does not want to work with the business community. He wants to burn it down.
The excuse for his attendance, according to Labour’s press office, is straight out of the Animal Farm textbook for self-serving justification. McDonnell, apparently, intends to use the world’s most high-profile capitalist conference to “explain Labour’s vision for an alternative economic approach to replace the current model of capitalism”.
The trouble is that McDonnell’s alternative economic approach for capitalism is really not that alternative, or at least, not new. It has been tried before, and failed countless times. The Soviet Union. China. Cuba. Venezuela.
It does not involve working with businesses – it involves seizing their assets and putting them in the hands of the state to run, or at the very least drowning them in regulation and taxing them out of existence.
This isn’t media spin – it’s right there in the rhetoric the shadow chancellor and his colleagues delight in.
At the last Labour party conference, McDonnell admitted that his team were preparing for the economic fall-out their policies would undoubtedly cause. In November, Corbyn made a video explicitly threatening the banking sector.
Then December saw Labour recommending that the Bank of England be moved from London to Birmingham, accusing banks of having “helped to create a distorted economy” and compromised financial stability.
If there were ever any bridges between Corbyn’s Labour party and the business community, they have been well and truly burned by now. There can be no meaningful dialogue with an ideological faction whose leader wrote that the group of entrepreneurs and bankers who attend Davos is “not a solution to the world’s problems… In reality, it is the main cause of them”.
McDonnell’s fans will enjoy the eventual social media clips of him standing up to the global elite, but the elite in question should be under no illusion about what a Labour government would mean for them in this country.