Watching the watchers watching the Shadow Chancellor’s speech to the Labour Party Conference 2015
The transcript of the speech is at http://press.labour.org.uk/post/130055656854/speech-by-john-mcdonnell-to-labour-party-annual, with a video on The Mirror’s site here.
Given that Mr McDonnell had less than 15 days in which to put the speech together, it was a clear, confident, well-delivered speech. He didn’t show any signs of nerves or awkwardness that often plagued Mr Miliband, and sometimes Mr Balls – the latter having to overcome a stammer to speak in public. Evan Davis of the BBC described the speech as the most radical departure from mainstream politics at a conference in recent years.
What struck me was the tone of Mr McDonnell’s speech compared to other front bench speeches. With other Labour MPs, many had to backtrack following previous opposition to Mr Corbyn. With Mr McDonnell, this was not the case. The same I felt was true of Diane Abbott, who I thought gave a well delivered and reasoned speech as the new shadow international development secretary. For Ms Abbott she is on familiar policy ground having spent four years on the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. One particular high point for her was when she roasted alive Tim Spicer, a former army colonel over arms exports. (The transcript of that hearing starts at the end of this page, and subsequent).
Mainstream politics underestimating John McDonnell and Diane Abbott?
Perhaps it was because Mr McDonnell and Ms Abbott did not feel the need to look over their shoulders politics-wise in their speeches that aided their spoken delivery. In the case of Mr McDonnell, he is one of the few MPs who has regularly spoken up for rank-and-file civil servants on the floor of the House of Commons. When you are in a politically-restricted role and cannot speak out, having politicians speaking out on your behalf counts for lots.
The same goes for Ms Abbott. I only found out about her popularity within London’s Black communities through the civil servants I worked with day-in-day-out. They were the ones that helped educated me about the day-to-day struggles they and their children faced growing up in London during the times of clashes such as Brixton in 1981. All too easy to forget/overlook having grown up in Cambridge – which during my childhood I was one of the few non-white children in my year group as I went through school.
Basically my point is that there’s more to both Mr McDonnell and Ms Abbott than what we see in the media. The test for the two of them now is a huge one: They are no longer isolated figures on the fringes of the Labour Party. Instead they are now policy leads for the economy/finance, and for international development respectively. It won’t just be a test of their politics, but of their personalities too – in particular how they work with others to formulate policy in the direct sunlight of the mainstream media.
Compelling the broadcast media to publicise radical political ideas
The laws on party political neutrality means that the UK broadcast media cannot explicitly back any specific party. With the larger parties, they have to broadcast who said what ‘as delivered’ in the news. Mr McDonnell mentioned a tax on foreign currency transactions – known as the Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) or the Robin Hood Tax. That meant TV news presenters having to explain to viewers less familiar with politics about these new ideas. What is too early to say is what the general public think of those ideas. What does matter is that by simply talking about them on public platforms, Mr McDonnell is giving little-heard policies some daylight.
“Will those policies stand up to scrutiny?”
Interestingly Mr McDonnell has welcomed the scrutiny of those ideas – announcing a number of policy reviews and the creation of a new economics advisory board with a number of well-known economists who have been critical of neo-liberal economics. Again, the reason why this matters is that those economists now become target guests to be interviewed on a regular basis because their profile has been raised further as policy advisers to nominally a potential government in waiting – irrespective of what you think those odds are.
The media doing itself no favours with clear bias
There are more than a few criticisms that can be thrown at Mr McDonnell’s policies – whether from a point of principle or whether from the practicalities. The problem with the media’s response is their approach has kept up the same level of aggression against Mr Miliband that they are forgetting some of the very basics of detailed scrutiny – leaving themselves exposed.
With The BBC’s Daily Politics Show, Jo Coburn spent much of the show talking to Labour Party member and strong Corbyn critic John McTernan without any other guests. As a result, the only panellist the BBC had was completely dismissive of Mr McDonnell’s speech. Far better to have a panel of three with a range of opinions rather than a single figure who inevitably will be against.
Pro-business vs pro-market
Take John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry. His reported quotation in The Guardian criticises Mr McDonnell for not providing enough policy detail. (See here). Mr McDonnell has only been in post for 15 days. There is no way he would expect that sort of detail from the chief executives of the firms his organisation represents after such a short time. I also disagree with Mr Cridland on the concept of ‘pro-business’. My take is that the state’s responsibility is to ensure competitive markets – which is ‘pro-market’. Being pro-market and pro-business are not necessarily the same things.
For example look at the outsourcing industry. The policy of outsourcing may well be ‘pro-business’ for the businesses involved, but without breaking up the oligopoly that has built up, it certainly isn’t ‘pro-market’. A ‘pro-business’ government could be in favour of mergers of large companies. A pro-market government in my opinion would be far less likely to be in favour, because such mergers inevitably reduce competition. When faced with huge pre-existing companies, the barriers to entering such dominated markets are huge. If they were not, we’d have far more phone companies, high street banking firms, food shop companies and beyond. But we don’t. Mr McDonnell very much made a pitch towards small and micro-businesses, and away from large multinationals of the like that Mr Cridland represents.
Are we seeing a new John McDonnell?
Richard Murphy on Newsnight made the point that becoming shadow chancellor brings with it responsibilities – which means that tone and content of past speeches of Mr McDonnell have to change. The reason for this is that as an MP, Mr McDonnell could say what he likes. It’s his constituents who back him or sack him. As the holder of a shadow ministerial post, Mr McDonnell is bound by the convention of collective responsibility. That means he has to make compromises. Anyone in ministerial office has to do the same. You have your disagreements behind closed doors, then present a united front once you’ve had the debate. Mr Murphy commented that this was a positive change, and that Mr McDonnell is growing into the post.
“How are the print media reacting?”
As you’d expect. Again, the problem is that the more hysterical their coverage, the more they forget to do actual policy scrutiny – leaving it up to specialist bloggers to fill that vacuum. (Keep tabs on Frances Coppola – in particular on all things quantitative easing). The inevitable challenge for Mr Corbyn’s Labour is how to operate in the face of this – something Mr Miliband struggled with.
“What about the old Blairite faction in Labour? The ‘Progress’ wing? And Brown’s allies?”
In terms of avoiding the echo chamber, it’s worth having a look at their website http://www.progressonline.org.uk/ to see who is saying what. Personally I don’t buy the ‘Red Tory’ insults. The abuse thrown at Liz Kendall disturbed me. As far as policy, strategy and tactics go, everything is fair game as far as scrutiny goes. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown failed to nurture the next generation of Labour politicians during their time in office, which in part explains why Mr Miliband floundered during his time as Labour leader. The political elimination of Mr Balls at the general election as well as Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary by the impressive Mhairi Black, created a huge hole for the Labour ‘moderate’ establishment.
Although still politically shellshocked by the scale of Mr Corbyn’s win, it was standing room only at the Progress rally at the Labour Party Conference. See Emily Ashton’s write up at http://www.buzzfeed.com/emilyashton/labour-pigs-head. See also Progess’ Storify here. Despite the scale of Mr Corbyn’s win, they remain an influential force. What remains to be seen is which members of the Progress faction choose to work with Mr Corbyn and his team, which remain quiet on the back benches and which plot for Mr Corbyn’s downfall. As Tristram Hunt said, Mr Corbyn had earned the right to implement his ideas. Note too Dr Hunt’s article in The Guardian here.
Over the next few days we’ll here from Chancellor George Osborne. It’ll be interesting to see how he and his party react to this ‘new look and new way of working’ Labour. Mr Osborne is growing into a sharp and ruthless political operator with a growing band of loyal politicians with him. The first clashes begin in mid October.
We live in interesting times.