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Labour let us down yesterday: Laurie Penny reports from A&E

The grim truth is that nobody in the Labour Party has any answers.

It's 2am, and I'm sitting under a strip light in the emergency unit of my local hospital, waiting for the doctors to finish attending to a young friend of mine who attempted to end her life tonight. When the paramedics arrived, they told us she wasn't the first -- for many Londoners, it seems, something about the news or the weather today gave the impression that a crisis point has been reached.

Apart from a shoeless shouting drunk growling at the nurses to give him back his confiscated footgear, the waiting room is quiet, strewn with ill, beaten-looking people patiently waiting to be seen. The frontline NHS personnel staffing the emergency desk were rushed off their feet even before massive public-sector cutbacks were announced a few hours ago, but they're doing the best they can. Somewhere behind my head, a machine that goes 'bing!' -- Monty Python observed that every hospital must have one -- seems, at this hallucinogenic hour of the night, to be taking the slow, trembling pulse of the nation.

The people of Britain have been badly let down today. The poor, the young, the old, the tired, the unwell: we have all been let down. Not just by the Tories, who let us know what was coming with all the oily subtlety of side-street sleaze artists; nor by the Liberal Democrats, from whom nobody expected any more than the stern, funereal complicity that they delivered during today's spending review. No: the people have been let down by Labour.

In 13 years of meandering and hawkish leadership, it seems that the Labour Party has utterly forgotten what effective opposition politics are supposed to look like. If its collective response to the greatest assault on social democracy in living memory is anything to go by, Labour has also lost sight of what it means to be a party of the left.

After laying out the details of his economic shock doctrine, George Osborne glibly asked the shadow chancellor if he had any other ideas. With all the panache of a sixth-form debater, Osborne repeated the question: did Labour's new economic spokesperson, or indeed anyone on the Labour benches, have alternative suggestions for fixing the economy other than tearing up the Attlee settlement, throwing a million on to the dole and destroying welfare?

Alan Johnson did not answer. Instead, he stammered, he clucked, he flapped, he did everything but lay an egg in an apparent attempt to mimetically re-enact the chickenish behaviour of his party over the past few weeks. The shadow chancellor gave no answer because he has no answer; nobody in the Labour Party, it seems, has any answers. They have knelt down and swallowed the Tory narrative that this recession is all Labour's fault, rather than the result of years of systematic global financial deregulation with which every major political party in Britain and the US was until lately in agreement.

The strongest criticism Mr Johnson could find was to suggest that the planned cuts were a little 'ideological' in aspect -- which is a shame, because the left could really do with some alternative ideology to counterbalance the Conservative Party's determination to wage class war with a calculator, and right now the Labour Party can't seem to find its ideology with both hands.

The grim truth is that the recoagulated Labour Party has no ideology and no new ideas. It was Labour that began the privatisation and withdrawal of public services in this country; now, today, with the Blairite model of intermittently caring neoliberalism buried at the crossroads of global economic crisis with a repossession order through its heart, even a new leader seems to have done little to raise any life from the ashes of the Labour left.

Labour has no answers; not for Osborne, not for its supporters, and certainly not for the weary Hackney residents currently curled up in this NHS waiting room, wondering if they can afford to spend a pound on a hot chocolate from the machine. The teenage boy next to me has started vomiting noisily into a cardboard dish; a drowsy-looking young woman is bleeding into her seat, a trickle of dark fluid slowly seeping on to the floor while her nervous partner holds her hand. My friend still has not returned. Alan Johnson doesn't have an answer for her either, nor for the hundreds of thousands of people who have felt despair shove its chill fingers into our hearts tonight.

That Labour does not have any answers for us is a disgusting display of the irrelevance of Westminster politics to the lives of ordinary citizens. If today's pathetic equivocation parade is a benchmark for the next four years of Labour politics, we will have to look elsewhere to find a voice in the hard, cold months ahead.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.