What happens in Greece will not stay there. Photo: Getty Images
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What happens in Greece will not stay there. The Prime Minister must act

Rachel Reeves surveys the scene ahead of the UK's budget and explains why she's backing Andy Burnham for Labour leader.

In the aftermath of the Greek referendum, the threat of instability in the Eurozone reminds us that Britain cannot insulate itself from global economic forces. So we need this week’s Budget to help build a more resilient economy – securing our public finances, productivity and competitiveness.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown rightly kept us out of the single currency that was supposed to deliver stability - but is currently creating the opposite. Yet we would be naïve to think that disruption on our doorstep will not have consequences at home. In Europe and at the IMF the British Prime Minister and Chancellor should be arguing for a new deal for Greece, including proper restructuring of the Greek economy but also more time and greater debt write-downs. Without this, more austerity is simply going to deliver higher unemployment, lower output, and deeper deficits.

But uncertainty abroad also underscores the importance of securing our position at home.

Before the 2007 global financial crisis hit, Britain’s national debt was less than 40 per cent of GDP. Today it is more than 80 per cent. It will be the work of this, and future, parliaments to get it back to sustainable pre-crisis levels. This is not only so we can withstand external shocks, it is also essential for ending a situation where annual debt interest payments are set to exceed £50bn a year – more taxpayers’ money going to bondholders every year than we pay to the teachers in our schools or the nurses in our hospitals. We must deal with our debt precisely so we can release resources for the public services we believe in and the infrastructure our economy needs.

Labour is committed to this task. But we will need to be clearer than we were at the last election about a timetable for getting the deficit down and set a target for when we would get the national debt back to pre-crisis levels. The approach Labour committed to before the election could have seen debt still above 65 per cent in 2030. We must admit the mistakes of the past, and be clear that while spending on public services did not cause the financial crisis, the deficit that we were running when the shock hit meant we weren't as prepared as we should have been. Andy Burnham understands this, and this is exactly why I am backing him for Leader of the Labour Party. Looking forward, we should commit to run a surplus when the economy is growing at or above its historic average rate, allowing us to bring the debt down more quickly. And the Office for Budget Responsibility should be the independent arbiter of the government’s progress in this.

Getting our debt down as a share of GDP means cutting departmental spending as well as driving efficiency across all our public services. But crucially, it also means building a more productive and inclusive economy, raising earnings and reducing reliance on benefits and tax credits.

Early in the last Parliament, George Osborne promised to “rebalance the economy” with a “march of the makers”. But since then we have seen productivity stagnate, our current account deficit rise to record levels, and a fragile recovery that remains too reliant on household borrowing and which has yet to be felt in many parts of the country.

The underlying weaknesses and imbalances in our economy pose no less a risk to our future stability and prosperity than the unsustainable state of our public finances. We need a Budget that rises to both challenges.

Take social security spending, Labour supports the principle of a benefit cap to ensure our welfare system is fair, affordable and rewards hard work. But to make significant savings from social security we need a Budget to create more productive, high skilled, better paid jobs. Without this, cutting away support for low-paid workers, as this government plans, risks weakening work incentives and deepening the division and disadvantage that prevent us making the most of our country’s potential.

Now is not the time to be timid, now is the time to be bold and so on Wednesday, the Chancellor should announce an increase in the minimum wage. And with five million people paid less than living wage, there should be tax breaks for firms who will pay the living wage, better use of government procurement and a requirement on companies to report on whether they pay the living wage so consumers can vote with their purses and wallets.

And crucially, this week's budget needs to back the entrepreneurs and employers who create jobs – rewarding innovation and investment, improving access to finance, and doing what it takes to secure the research base, skilled workforce and world class infrastructure businesses need.

With a focus on economic credibility, constructive engagement with business and a bold plan for technical education and skills, Andy has shown that he gets this - and the need for Labour to lead the debate over Britain’s economic future.

That’s why I am pleased to be co-chairing Andy's Business Panel which launched last week alongside Graham Cole, chair of Augusta Westland, and Shabir Randeree, Chair of DCD group. This week the panel met for the first time to start the conversation in which we will work to engage businesses of all shapes and sizes throughout the country – so that Labour can best understand what businesses need to create the jobs and opportunities to grow our economy.

Dealing decisively with the deficit and the debt are essential to good economic management, but so is a strategy to raise the productivity of our workforce and the competitiveness of our businesses. If this week’s budget does not rise to this twin challenge, we in the Labour Party must show that we can.

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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.