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Mary Creagh: Labour has become like Millwall Football Club – nobody likes us but we don’t care

The leadership campaign has been dragged to the left, says Mary Creagh. Unfortunately, the electorate has moved to the centre right - and voters think Labour doesn't understand their lives.

The Labour Party finds itself in a horrible place as parliament rises for the summer break. A dozen weeks since our overwhelming election defeat, Labour MPs are full of gallows humour and quiet despair – because, in choosing our new leader, we are making four of the same mistakes we made in 2010. First, like Gordon Brown after his defeat, Ed Miliband stood down as leader immediately. He hoped that the party could have “an open and honest debate about the right way forward, without constraint”. That debate has not materialised and we are having a family row with the Labour selectorate instead of a discussion with the British electorate.

Second, we are once again in a drawn-out leadership race that will exhaust the candidates, while David Cameron chillaxes on three summer holidays and Tim Farron and Nicola Sturgeon rally their troops for the battles ahead. Whoever is elected as leader will be drained by the campaign but have to start work right away. The first big test will be a speech to the trade union congress, which starts the day after the winner is announced on 12 September. The leader must then appoint a shadow cabinet, prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions, rebuild morale and write a cracker of a conference speech.

Third, we have a left-wing candidate on the ballot “for balance”. During the 2010 leadership election, David Miliband “lent” nominations to other candidates to ensure that Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham could take part. This made the transfers of voting under the single transferable vote system less predictable and, arguably, deprived David of the three or four extra MPs’ votes he needed to win. David’s legacy to Labour, which made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot “to have a broad debate”, has dragged the leadership campaign to the left. Unfortunately, the electorate has moved to the centre right.

When I was still seeking MP nominations for the leadership, party members trolled me on Twitter, asking me to put Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot. I don’t believe in nominating someone I don’t intend to vote for. Corbyn’s presence on the ballot and his storming performances at hustings and in the constituency nominations have raised the prospect that he might win. That prospect, I’m sure, is as uncomfortable for him as it is alarming for the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Fourth, the centre ground remains a toxic place, with anyone who suggests that we listen to the public branded as a Blairite or a Tory, including, risibly, Harriet Harman. A colleague remarked to me, “You can blame Tony Blair for many things but you can’t blame him for winning three elections” – and, through those victories, lifting a million pensioners and a million children out of poverty, building a fairer workplace through the minimum wage and holiday entitlement, stopping mass murder in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, greening the economy and improving the lives of millions of people in the poorest countries of the world.

The public barely registers Labour’s leadership election, so rich in the narcissism of small differences. When we do make the news, people notice our internal divisions on the same issues that led them to reject us on 7 May: economic credibility, immigration, welfare. The challenges of technological change, housing and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean are forgotten as the party debates whether Jeremy should have a seat in the shadow cabinet, or whether mothers make better leaders. People long for a centre-left party that speaks to the challenges of their lives, offers hope for their families and charts a course through choppy waters.

Significant international challenges lie ahead. As progressives, we must apply our values to shape Britain’s place in the world. Labour must resist the siren call of the left, which is busy learning the wrong lessons from Greece’s latest bailout. As the Labour MEP Richard Corbett points out, the Greeks had already had one long-term (30 years), low-interest (1.7 per cent) bailout from the IMF and the eurozone and the private sector had written off half of Greek debt. The Syriza/far-right coalition’s chaotic approach has led the Greek economy – which had returned to growth – to plunge back into recession, with the summer holiday period wiped out as tourists cancel their trips.

Yet those on the British left have branded the situation in Greece – Syriza’s referendum, capital controls and bank closures that have left crucial medical supplies running short – as a “coup” by Germany. They have started wondering whether Britain should stay in the EU, ignoring the social, economic, environmental and security gains that UK membership has brought us.

Labour is not yet in the place where we can say with confidence: “The only way is up.” Early findings from the “lessons learned” report commissioned by Harriet suggest that voters think that Labour simply does not understand their lives. We are in danger of becoming the political equivalent of Millwall Football Club. Their chant? “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

Andy Burnham has diagnosed one problem correctly – Labour has lost its emotional connection with the electorate. The solution is not to talk about rebuilding that connection but to do it. People vote not solely on the basis of which leader they would like to go down the pub with but on hard-headed calculations about which party is best for the economy and their family.

Yvette Cooper has rightly diagnosed that Cameron has a woman problem and she has a huge range of ministerial experience. Liz Kendall has told the uncomfortable truths that the party needs to hear. Both rightly talk about the need to campaign from the head and the heart. I am still undecided as to which woman I can see as a Labour prime minister in 2020, but I’ll be putting one of them at the top of my ballot as our best chance of winning.

Mary Creagh is the MP for Wakefield

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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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.