Labour’s failure to get a grip

Illustration by Matt Kenyon Illustration: Matt Kenyon/The Guardian

JVL Introduction

A powerful article by John McDonnell, former Shadow Chancellor, calling out – in the nicest possible way –  Labour’s abject failure to to provide an effective opposition.

All you need to do, he suggests, is “nail your opponent and offer a solid alternative”. Starmer and his team are failing dismally.

Instead of offering a set of solid priority commitments (no child will live in poverty or hunger, a real living wage, a fully funded national care service etc) we have a party leadership destructively pursuing internal factional disputes and “the loss of more than 100,000 members; the risk of one of our founding unions disaffiliating; and, ironically for a party pledged to tackling antisemitism, reports of Jewish members being more likely to face disciplinary action than others.”

This article was originally published by the Guardian on Sat 11 Sep 2021. Read the original here.

It’s increasingly clear: Labour’s leadership has little idea how to win a political fight

The party needs to nail Boris Johnson for the liar he is, and mobilise its mass membership with a radical set of policies

After this week’s performance by the Labour party, I say – more in sorrow than in anger – that we can’t go on like this, something’s urgently got to give.

It’s more than a year since a new leadership was elected, but the Labour response to Boris Johnson’s social care announcement demonstrated starkly just how far the party leadership is from having a strategy to deal with him or knowing how to respond to the new political battleground.

Nailing Johnson doesn’t require invention or much forensic interrogation. His character has become increasingly obvious to people. He is a self-interested liar, whose sole motive throughout his life has been looking after number one. His clowning antics have become passé and largely don’t wash any more for people who have gone through such tough times since Covid emerged.

Johnson’s achilles heel is, increasingly, trust. It shouldn’t have been left to Dawn Butler on the backbenches to call Johnson out for what he is – a blatant and ruthless liar. This should have been a running consistent theme – linked to the month-by-month mounting evidence of his betrayal of all those who believed his lies in the last general election, and to the deceits and corruption of his ministerial team throughout the pandemic.

Increasingly, people are waking up to the fact that Johnson is solely motivated by self-interest. He will always look after himself and people like himself. And that means others will always be sacrificed, whether it’s pensioners reliant on the triple lock, families relying on universal credit, or low-paid workers who believed his now broken pledges on income tax and national insurance.

The result is that, just as we have seen in the tax measures to fund social care, the burden of his policies falls on working people, and the wealth of the richest people is protected.

Alongside the failure to nail the image of Johnson in the popular mind, the Labour leadership’s failure, or refusal, to take the lead effectively on any issue is becoming a regular embarrassment. It means that, even when Tory support dips in the polls, it does not come to Labour.

Shadow cabinet members are sent out like the “poor bloody infantry”: after making valid attacks on Johnson’s policies, they are destroyed by interviewers simply asking the obvious question, “Well what would you do then?”

They are forced on most occasions to repeat the mantra: “It will be in the manifesto.” Apart from coming across as shifty, it confirms the suspicion that Labour has no alternative.

One of the lessons from the 2019 election is that simply announcing an array of attractive policies doesn’t work. Policies need time to bed down into the popular consciousness. The range of new policies in 2019 was planned for the normal electoral cycle, with an election possibly two years off. In desperation during that campaign we launched a policy blitz, which strained credibility with some of the voters we were seeking to attract.

It’s widely accepted that Johnson will go to the electorate early, most probably in the spring of 2023, but rumours abound in Tory circles that he will go in 2022 to avoid the Covid inquiry catching up with him. That’s why Labour needs to set out now at least the bare bones of a policy programme: one that isn’t based on the lowest common denominator of a focus group but excites and motivates people about the type of society a Labour government wants to achieve.

A group of Labour supporters in the communications sector has recommended, as a start, a new pledge card setting out a limited number of solid priority commitments. For me this needs to combine relevance and ambition. So for example,
A Labour government would ensure:

  • no child will live in poverty or go hungry;
  • low pay will be ended with a real living wage;
  • the NHS and a new national care service will be fully and fairly funded;
  • the privatisation of our NHS and public services will be halted;
  • tuition fees will be scrapped, and our schools and childcare will fully funded;
  • climate change will be tackled and net zero carbon achieved by 2030 with a Green New Deal.

In addition to coming across as a policy-free zone, Labour’s media coverage is regularly soured by displays of division as the party leadership destructively pursues internal factional disputes.

The result has been the loss of more than 100,000 members; the risk of one of our founding unions disaffiliating; and, ironically for a party pledged to tackling antisemitism, reports of Jewish members being more likely to face disciplinary action than others.

So I say this to whoever is making the decisions at the top of Labour: party members are not the enemy. The Tories have the money and most of the media, but we have the potential of a mass campaigning membership. That equation doesn’t always balance out, but it’s the most effective we can create.

My fear is that, if the Labour leadership continues on this path, people will increasingly see a party divided and fail to know what it stands for.

It wouldn’t take much to unite the party again and mobilise an enthusiastic mass membership with a radical basic set of policies. But time is short and action is needed.

  • John McDonnell has been the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington since 1997. He was shadow chancellor from 2015 to 2020


Comments (20)

  • Margaret West says:

    Well done John – this needed to be said!

    Some of this was said by Kinnock Sr :

    in his “walking on eggs” address to a Q and A session when he urged, among others things, that Starmers 10 pledges should be reduced to six. I guess he had forgotten that the 10 pledges had long ago been ditched in favour of some jargon on Agile projects (a concept which had been completely misunderstood).

  • Paul Smith says:

    In the Guardian!

  • Doug says:

    The internal report and subsequent attacks on members tells us there is not a snowballs chance in hell of reuniting
    Red Tories are in the wrong party
    J Mc calls it wrong again, add this to 2nd referendum and Anti Semitism scam

  • John Bowley says:

    Keir Starmer is an incompetent politician who is very unsuited to be Labour Party Leader, a position which he gained by being untruthful about his aspirations before his election. Keir Starmer is damaging the Labour Party.

    As can be seen by all with any perception, Keir Srarmer is putting a focus on persecuting Labour Party members who are not of the Establishment. This has included disproportionately persecuting Jewish members for not being Zionists or for being critical of the embarassing racist State of Israel.

    The disproportionate persecution of Jewish Socialists for no good reason is fundamentally antisemitic, of course. Sir Keir Starmer is a vile hypocrite.

    Sir Keir Starmer is worse than useless at tackling the Conservatives.

  • Tony Booth says:

    “It wouldn’t take much to unite the party again….” The Party cannot be united until it is recognised that Jeremy spoke the truth on the exaggeration of antisemitism allegations against Labour Party members and is owed an apology for his mistreatment and the withdrawal of the whip. John makes no mention of him nor of the exclusion of Ken Loach and many others. Sadly there is more than one “self-interested liar” in Parliament. Keir Starmer appears in the same light following his trashing of the insincere pledges he made in order to get elected as leader. We can only begin to unite when the lying and purges stop and dialogue begins.

  • Ieuan Einion says:

    Tony Booth is absolutely correct but it is simultaneously possible that had J McD wanted to reference Ken Loach or JC, his article would not have seen the light of day even within the pages of the toxic Guardian, and would have been relegated to social media echo chambers. Such is the world we live in.

  • Nick Pile says:

    Tony Booth’s comments (and John Bowley’s too) are so important. Starmer’s incompetence is a self-inflicted wound by the Labour Party membership: his refusal to disclose his funding, his “ten pledges” which were discarded as soon as he took up his position in the leader’s office: his “investigation” and expulsion of everyone and anyone with whom the Board of Deputies do not agree is as sinister as is his membership of the trilateral commission and his reliance on the advice of Mandelson and Blair. It’s hard to see how the Left can reclaim this territory: Starmer has moved Labour back to Blair’s positioning, vying for position on the right of economic and social policy. I will not vote Labour whilst it is a neo-liberal alternative to the tories.

  • Martin Kilkie says:

    The Campaign group of MPs is just as culpable as Starmer. Remember what John Stuart Mills said about good men and evil?

  • Joe Westerman says:

    ”My fear is that, if the Labour leadership continues on this path, people will increasingly see a party divided and fail to know what it stands for.”

    And how will the people see ”a party divided” when the media are studiously avoiding the the rife anti-semitic witch-hunt going on? This has also highlighted exactly how racist the party is, prioritising one form of racism in a highly factional manner whilst totally ignoring rampant Islamophobia and anti-black racism.

    I am sorry, but this is very timid. Of course, The G might not have printed what he REALLY should have said because that would expose their co-option into the Establishment, but I fear that actually, this is as far as McDonnell is willing to go, because anymore would call into question his own role in the ”antisemitism is rife” scam.

  • Mary Davies says:

    Spot on John McDonnell.

  • Ken G says:

    McDonnell did as much as anyone to sabotage Labour’s chances under Corbyn, with his wishy washy pro-second-referendum nonsense, his complete lack of solidarity with the victims of the witchhunt and lack of outspokenness in their defence, not to mention his conciliatory attitude to obvious right-wing saboteurs and war criminals like Campbell. He’s a disgrace to the movement, and nobody should be taking him (or the Guardian) seriously nor giving him a platform, anymore.

  • Allan Howard says:

    You REALLY don’t seem to have any insight into how politics works Doug. It’s a game of poker sometimes, and things are said for public consumption. Then again, you’re always criticising and discrediting Jeremy and SCG members and the left in general on skwawkbox!

    And even though I’ve pointed out on several occasions or more that the SCG don’t have enough members to mount a leadership challenge – and did so on THIS site as well about three weeks ago – you STILL keep fraudulently criticising them for not doing so, as you did on skwawkbox two or three days ago.

  • J P White says:

    100% agree with you John. Yet to see or hear any thoughts from SKS – to say I’m not best impressed with his actions thus far would be gentlest way of putting it. I would add this piece of advice to him. You are the Leader of the Opposition to THE most divisive and offensive Tory Government of my 75 year lifetime. It’s long overdue time that you start to nail this charlatan PM on his lies, on the entire plethora of his non-specific dismissive throwaway lines at PMQ. Your style and approach is just not strong enough to address the catalogue of offences from the other side of the chamber. It doesn’t capture the gravity and the anger our people are experiencing outside the Commons and you need to up your game and you need to LEAD and OPPOSE! QC you may be but our people don’t appreciate the subtleties of High Court language – it doesn’t wash with them. Straight-talking, no-nonsense plain language and not tarted up is what our people need to see and hear from you in the H of C – and very very soon before the Party altogether becomes an irrelevance.

  • Brian Burden says:

    If only John had stood for the leadership after Jeremy.

  • Jack T says:

    Ken G is spot on. When solidarity was required, Mc Donnell failed. It’s galling now to hear him speak in support of Corbyn whom he helped to injure by criticising him at the time. In fact neither he nor Corbyn had the integrity or decency to support Chris Williamson when he was targeted by Zionists.

  • Margaret West says:

    In answer to some of the posts – a lot of what John said
    echoed Kinnock Sr in his Q and A session . (See my link
    to Labour List in first post.)

    Granted it would not be read by the public – but it does
    show that some senior members of the Labour Party are
    aware of what is going on and the damage which is being

    I am hoping against hope that some progress is made at the Labour Party Conference – and getting rid of Evans would be a start.

  • Philip Inglesant says:

    Winning for Labour is not part of the strategy. Making Britain safe for neo-liberalism IS the point. NOT winning is winning.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    I agree with Doug in so far, that ,in my view, the question of reuniting is a mere rhetoric one. How can we trust those that have undermined two elections, smear and purge members with no thought about any consequences of their actions. However actions do have consequences: Loss of trust is the big one. I know you have a saying that is keep your friends close but your enemies closer ( or words to that effect), but having to do that all the time would be quite an unnecessary distraction from our task in hand. At best, I think, we should advise certain people to join a party that panders to their aspirations and aims in a way more in sync with their morals. We may also ask them to close the door quietly when they finally leave.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Sabine, I see you’ve come to Doug’s defence! As I said before, such things are said for public consumption…… I mean as *IF* Jeremy Corbyn and the SCG members **really** believe that the Blairites are ever going to ‘unite’ after all that’s happened – ie all they’ve done and continue to do – during the past six years. Of course they don’t. I mean you’d have to be a total numbskull to believe such a thing is possible, and they are NOT numbskulls! No-one is THAT dumb!

    Anyway, what do you think about the fact that despite me telling Doug on more than a few occasions – one would have thought just ONE occasion would have sufficed – that the SCG don’t have the numbers to mount a challenge, he continues to post comments (on skwawkbox mainly, but ALSO on this site) fraudulently castigating the SCG for not mounting a leadership challenge against Starmer? And I don’t think it has anything to do with Doug having a short memory!

    NB To mount a challenge would require forty nominations, and the SCG only has thirty-four members if I remember correctly, and obviously you can’t nominate yourself, and given that Jeremy has had the whip withdrawn, I assume he wouldn’t be eligible to nominate anyone, and if that’s the case, then they are eight short of the required forty nominations.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    Hi Allan, I have always been rather cynical of that notion of broad church or what we call with huge amount of irony Frieden-Freude-Eierkuchen unity – a make believe unity.
    There is no unity of the kind we would need or define as such, as the difference in values and principles is like day and night (never the twain shall they meet (is that correct?).
    In my view the right-wing have no place within Labour. To believe they do just keeps us endlessly going around in circles.
    Re the point you raise: It is simple maths, Doug should get that, but I wonder if there is a reason for ignoring the facts. Generally I would say I would question why . So please Doug explain to me why you think the SCG ought to mount a leadership challenge if they have not got the numbers to do this successfully.

Comments are now closed.