With Labour support hitting lows of 27%, George Greenwood and Sarah Henderson attend a trade union event, and talk to John McDonnell about why the Corbyn movement is failing to ignite the public’s imagination
The Corbyn movement has been fighting claims that it has become a party within a party, but these claims are now running thin.
When John McDonnell took to the stage with Yanis Varoufakis on Saturday at a Trade Union Coordination Group event, the themes of the conversation had the same ring as those throughout the Labour leadership campaign; getting the Tories out of office, creating a new deal for workers, and fighting the “scorched earth” policy of cuts.
McDonnell was certainly playing to his audience, packed with supporters from Stop the War, the People’s Assembly, CND and RMT, among others.
When we had caught up with the Shadow Chancellor at a Momentum rally previously, he told us,
"We have to be straight with people. We are about to have a comprehensive spending review announcement. Departments beyond those that are supposed to be protected, health and education, are facing something between 25 and 40% cuts. That’s on a scale which means social care will be withdrawn from many more people than it is now. Welfare cuts of another £12 billion? It is a dismantling of the welfare state."
Such cuts are indeed dangerous for the worst off in our society, but narrowing the base of Labour support to these groups is equally dangerous for the party’s electoral prospects. The Shadow Chancellor explained the reasoning for engaging with groups further to the Left.
"All those people who came together during Jeremy’s campaign, just wanted to have a say. Once that election was over, they didn’t just go away, they wanted to have a say in the future, to maintain the momentum of that political debate."
While these groups often campaign for noble ends, the problem is that they can’t win power on their own. Speakers at Saturday’s rally all spoke of reigniting the Left, bringing along young people, and building a new campaign against austerity, As Mr McDonnell put it,
"The whole point is that we’re trying to make is a kind of politics that is engaging, democratic, getting people involved in the system that go back to their constituents, discuss ideas and begin the idea of transforming society."
But while there were calls to engage more closely with the Labour Party, there was little sign that these groups would consider taking the opinions of those further to the Right seriously. Tom Watson has warned the PLP that they needed to show more respect to their leader's mandate, yet this “new kind of politics” isolates rather than includes people who don’t share its exact values. With barbs about Blair met with wild approval from the crowd, it was hard to escape the sense that pragmatism, or electability, were now dirty words.
The rousing rhetoric was not backed up with anything as dull as a coherent strategy. Indeed, what was perhaps most shocking at this event, and the Momentum rally previously, was the call for law breaking, not only among members of the audience but among the speakers themselves. Ellen Clifford, from Disabled People Against Cuts, ran with the slogan “united we disobey” throughout her talk, and one activist I spoke to after the event, “Clint”, called for campaigners to physically prevent central government officials from entering into local government premises to even discuss cuts.
Direct action has its uses, as we have seen throughout British history. But such calls are unlikely to engage the centre-ground voters who see militarism as toxic.
Throughout Saturday’s event, people spoke of what could be achieved now that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were at the heart of Labour. They were name checked in every single speech and even Andrew Fisher was singled out for praise. Indeed, Jeremy recorded a “special message” for the audience that was played after the initial debate.
There was a hint of Big Brother about this huge, kindly face staring down at adoring eyes. Jeremy Corbyn is a good man. But he is one man, and it takes more than one man to build a successful party. There seems to be a great risk of these far-left groups using his brand and cache to serve their own ends, pulling the strings behind the image to make it talk and to drag Labour into a being a party of resistance rather than being a party of government.
Indeed, fittingly, the rather Orwellian maxim “unity is strength” was placed in large letters on the screen during the trade unionist debate that preceded McDonnell’s talk, used by the Prison Officers Association as its motto.
McDonnell claimed that the party was merely facing historic fear-mongering.
"There is a fear within Labour of other groups taking over, garnered from an experience with Trotskyist entryists in the 1980s. I think the problem with David Blunkett and others is that they just can’t break out of that history."
But this is a real concern for many in the Labour Party. Many members simply do not share the agenda of trade unionists. As we have seen with the tube strikes, many view trade unions as groups that simply do not have the best interests of the average worker in mind. It is the job of the Labour Party to keep these radical elements in line when action would seriously impact other vulnerable people.
The crowd turned up to hear great polemics and were not disappointed. Contrast this with the rather turgid speeches delivered at party conferences and you can see why this new kind of politics appeals.
Yanis Varoufakis, if anything, made the most sense. He advocated a publicly owned investment bank, and the strong taxation of income retained by firms, combined with tax breaks for investment, to force private institutions to put their capital to greater public good. There is sound economics in this, and infrastructure projects could indeed provide the fiscal stimulus of good old fashioned Keynesianism expansionism utilised during the financial crisis. Likewise, his plans to replace private rating agencies with a government debt rating smacked of best practice. The moral hazard of privately run rating agencies is well understood within the City.
But again, McDonnell takes the merits of the left-wing economics of an academic such as Varoufakis, and applies wishful thinking. His policy of fiscal expansion effectively calls for the Bank of England to simply print money to achieve this public investment, rather than to engage with private firms. As any basic student of economics understands, an expansion of the monetary base without a consequent expansion of the fiscal base, leads to inflation. It seems he learned little from the crises of the 1970s. Advocating such policies allow the Conservative economic slogans of “fiscal responsibility” and “the mess that Labour left us”, that McDonnell spent the entirety of Saturday decrying, to possess the grain of truth required to undermine his position.
Indeed, McDonnell went further and told us he believes that the private sector should have no involvement in delivering key public services such as the NHS whatsoever.
"My own view is that what we need is public services provided directly through taxation because as soon as you edge towards any form of privatisation, the profit motive takes over and eventually you are spending money that goes in individuals pockets that should be spent on delivering the service."
Again, to small business people and the aspiring middle class, what does this say? It suggests a Labour leadership that believes it already has all the answers, and refuses to listen or debate, unless that debate comes from the Left. This will not engage voters in Nuneaton, Oldham, or in Morley and Outwood.
The problem with the Corbyn movement is not its intentions. It is that it is a feel good politics. A party of the Left has a sacred responsibility to the worst off in society. Law breaking and splitting the movement in a muscular shift to the Left will fail to win votes, and will thus fail to deliver a government that can protect the most vulnerable. And even if we have to wait until 2020 to see a return to the centre, for many vulnerable people, this will be five years too late.