Labour's somewhat hollow triumph

Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand.

Thursday was a great day for Labour activists across the country, bringing about results which meant one of the most enjoyable election nights in years. Within moments of the polls closing, the Tories very own in-house omnishambles, Sayeeda Warsi, was dispatched to TV studios to tell the nation that Labour needed 700 council gains to be able to call the night a success. Later she tried to increase the number to 1000 - a figure that was nigh on impossible to achieve. 

That early attempt to move the goalposts was telling. Few Labour people seriously thought that 700 gains was achievable, but the Tories evidently did once they saw their vote collapsing on election day. In areas where Labour needs to win in 2015 (Thurrock, Norwich, Harlow, Basildon, Reading, Southampton, Plymouth) the results were overwhelmingly positive. But the gains weren't just confined to the south - in the north west, Labour took Wirral, and wrestled Sefton from No Overall Control for the first time since 1986. In Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield (to name just a few) huge chunks of the available seats fell to Labour.

And then Glasgow. We were never meant to win. Privately some senior Labour people had begun to concede it more than a week before election day, with the SNP tidal wave engulfing another Labour stronghold. But this time it was the final one. If Glasgow went SNP, the independence drumbeat would have intensified. As it is, Labour has shown that it can beat the SNP, with organisation, fresh candidates and an acknowledgement that the party has changed. Their result was remarkable - to paraphrase a much mocked Ed Miliband speech - the fightback in Scotland starts here.

And I still haven't even mentioned Labour's fantastic results in Wales, picking up Cardiff to strengthen the party's Cymru hegemony.

So Labour retained Scotland's biggest city and won the Welsh capital, but the same can't be said in England, where of course Labour lost the London Mayoral election. I've discussed why I think Ken lost already, but even here a certain defeat that the polls thought would be huge turned into a late night semi-squeaker for the Tories - with some on team Boris seemingly thinking that Boris had lost. That was a testament to the campaign's focus on the ground game, and the determination of Labour activists - both repaid by the election of 12 London Assembly members, and the ousting of Tories like the odious Brian Coleman.

But what cost Livingstone the election - at least numerically, rather than politically - was turnout, and the positive election results throughout the country don't mask the sapping effect that low turnout has on our democracy. Politically, neither party has yet been able to sufficiently enthuse the electorate enough to get past the "you're all the same" factor. Yet Ed Miliband appeared to realise the potency of this existential threat to party politics, when even after such strong results he talked of those who didn't vote at all.

The other side of the low turnout coin is cultural and organisational. As Karin Christiansen rightly pointed out on Friday, "Low turn-out is a problem in general. Both we and the Tories are stuck in low turn-out election strategies, with a race to the bottom: whose vote gets suppressed least wins." Does that sound like the kind of politics you want to be involved with? I know I certainly don't. But that kind of culture pervades all parties now - and is the context in which backlashes like Bradford West should be viewed. 

Recently a party member in a traditionally safe Labour area told me their local organiser "loved low turnout elections" and that the same organiser had told them Labour's aim in elections was "to discourage and demoralise our opponents' supporters from turning out while reminding enough of our voters to do so." It's a style of politics that seeks to drive up apathy. 

Is it any wonder that one of the most commonly heard replies on the doorstep is "you're all the same"?

Getting past that apathy is the real challenge for Labour and Miliband - putting down roots in areas that make Labour support more secure and long term, precisely because the party is in touch with the electorate, campaigning with them rather than just at them, and speaking to them on their terms. Only by making such a shift in the way the party campaigns can Labour stop the race to the bottom and help restore the nations's faith in politics and the ability of the left to change the country.

The alternative is more potentially hollow victories like this week. They may augur well for the future - but just as plausibly the success may be fleeting. Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand - and unless we act soon, the rising tide of public discontent will wash us all away.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of Labour List.

Glasgow, the fightback in Scotland starts here. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.