Next week’s Labour conference could be Sir Keir Starmer’s last chance to unify his party and set out a compelling vision for the country if he is to avoid a repeat of the 2019 ballot-box defeat in a general election that could be less than a year away, leading left winger John McDonnell has warned.
Sir Keir should break through activist “frustration” with his leadership by restoring the whip to predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and setting out a radical platform of policies on issues like ending child poverty, scrapping university tuition fees and delivering a “green new deal” on the climate emergency including public ownership of key industries, the former shadow chancellor told The Independent.
Mr McDonnell called on Sir Keir to take a lesson from US president Joe Biden, who he said was governing as a moderate centrist enacting a radical programme largely drawn up by leftists including former challenger for the Democrat nomination Bernie Sanders.
While he would not expect the leader to endorse all of his predecessor’s views, he could put him to work building support for Labour, said Mr McDonnell, declaring: “Jeremy could mobilise for Keir Starmer.”
If, instead, he chose to “ignore the sort trajectory of policies that we’ve had over this recent period”, he could be heading for “a really difficult conference”, Mr McDonnell said.
Mr Sanders will join Mr McDonnell by video link at one of a series of events on the fringe of the Brighton gathering being addressed by the veteran left-winger and Mr Corbyn, whose high-profile presence is feared by some in Starmer’s inner circle to be an attempt to distract from the message that the party is under new leadership.
Although Mr Corbyn remains suspended from the parliamentary Labour Party over his comments on an antisemitism report, Mr McDonnell said he expected the former leader to attend the main conference as well as the Momentum-backed The World Transformed festival running alongside it.
But he insisted that Corbynites were not seeking confrontation with Sir Keir in Brighton.
“No one on the left is looking for a fight,” said Mr McDonnell. “What we want to see is a Labour government.
“We want to see a party that actually has united on the basis of a radical policy programme that reflects the needs of our community. If that doesn’t emerge at conference, then the sense of frustration amongst our membership will build up and that is completely unnecessary.”
Mr McDonnell urged Sir Keir to resist any advice to try to define himself by taking on elements in his own party, as Neil Kinnock did when he denounced Militant at the 1985 conference in Bournemouth.
“The one thing that taught us in 1987 and 1992 is that people won’t vote for a divided party,” he said. “At the end of the day it just causes more division.”
Mr McDonnell said he has been trying to persuade Starmer’s shadow cabinet of the urgency of establishing Labour’s core vision in voters’ minds as soon as possible, rather than waiting until closer to an election which is currently scheduled for 2024, but which he believes is more likely to come in 2023 – or even 2022, if Boris Johnson tries to get it out of the way before the public inquiry into his handling of Covid.
Sir Keir must “learn the lesson of December 2019”, when Labour lost credibility by suddenly announcing a raft of policies – most notoriously on free broadband – which it had assumed could be rolled out over the two years remaining before Mr Johnson was due to go to the polls, he said.
“We were throwing the kitchen sink at the Tories in terms of policies and people didn’t believe us,” said Mr McDonnell.
“Learn the lessons of 2019. You need first of all to have an overall narrative and then you bed the policies in over time so that people understand them. They might not always agree with them but they’ll understand where you’re coming from.”
Sir Keir’s caution has left “the poor bloody infantry” on the doorsteps and in the TV studios with no comeback when their critiques of the government receive the response, “Well, what would you do?” The problem was exposed most brutally when Mr Johnson brushed aside criticisms of his own flimsy plan for social care this month with derision for Sir Keir’s failure to deliver a plan at all, he said.
“I’m trying to get across a sense of urgency to the people around Keir,” said McDonnell. “The policy-making process for the manifesto will take nine to 12 months from now and Johnson could have called the election by then. Even if it’s 2023, as most of the Tories are working on, we’ve only got 18 to 20 months max.
“Do the job – you need to do the job now. Otherwise, we go into an election on a manifesto produced so late that people either don’t understand it or don’t know about it or don’t find credible.”
While polls now put Labour on an almost even keel with Tories after the waning of Johnson’s “vaccine bounce”, Sir Keir’s personal ratings have “collapsed” because “people don’t just not know who he is, they don’t know what he stands for”, said McDonnell.
“The only way that people will have confidence in you is when they know what you’re going to do and what you’re about,” he said. “You have to set out what your objectives are and the society you want to create.
“It doesn’t have to be the details of the policy, it could be objectives – end child poverty, end low pay, decent housing, we’re going to fund schools, we’re going to make sure we scrap tuition fees and then the key issue is climate change – the green new deal, which includes the elements of public ownership.”
He said the 100,000-plus fall in Labour membership which has triggered a cash crisis for the party was largely down to activist “disillusionment” over Sir Keir’s failure to deliver on his leadership contest pledge to maintain 10 key Corbyn-era policies, as well as “faction-fighting” which had seen the suspension of left wingers like bakers’ union boss Ronnie Draper.
Restoration of the whip to the former leader was “absolutely key” to a positive conference, said Mr McDonnell, who said Sir Keir should also be promoting young talent from the left of the party into his shadow cabinet to build a “broad church”.
“He doesn’t have to endorse everything Jeremy believes in or says or has said,” he told The Independent. “He just has to demonstrate that actually Jeremy is a valuable member of our party like everybody else, and use his talents. Jeremy could mobilise for Keir Starmer.”
It would be “a complete mistake” for the current leadership to interpret the 2019 result as requiring them to jettison the platform of the Corbyn era, said Mr McDonnell.
“The whole world has moved on,” he said. “Look at what Biden’s doing – a centrist leader but implementing quite a radical policy programme, largely designed by the left.
“It’s happening in European elections now, in Germany and also in some Scandinavian countries. Voters are looking for motivation, they’re looking for vision, and it’s coming from the left and it’s got to be radical.
“The lessons of Covid are the lessons from the left – that we do care for one another, we need each other, we do rely upon the state and its public services.
“People are waking up to the crisis of climate change, they’re learning the lessons of how we tackled the Covid crisis and the way we need to tackle climate change.”
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