More of the same is not an option

John McDonnell says New Labour has left large parts of the electorate alienated or disappointed - th

When Labour was elected in 1997, it was on a wave of euphoria – a landslide victory built on a broad coalition of progressive support. Since that time we have systematically alienated or disappointed large sections of that coalition.

Now is the time to stand back and look objectively at where we are and why we have lost section after section of the coalition that brought us to power.

Undoubtedly, the biggest factor has been Iraq. We came to power promising an “ethical foreign policy”, yet we have sold arms to repressive regimes, started several wars, and have tied ourselves to the most right wing US Administration in living memory. We are now on the brink of renewing Trident, for which we are dependent on the US, and of siting Bush’s missile defence system on British soil. People did not vote Labour to implement the foreign policy of the Republican neocons. The US Democrats have come forward with a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq, we should be building a special relationship with them to implement this plan.

In the health service, we told people there was “24 hours to save the NHS” and true to our manifesto set about dismantling the disastrous internal market. After 20 years of underinvestment, the new money going into the NHS was a breath of fresh air, but we soon started to ignore our own advice and set about rebuilding the NHS internal market, and expanding the PFI schemes that the Tories began.

The results are seen clearly today, NHS budgets eaten up by exorbitant payments to PFI companies, lawyers’ fees, and contract managers. Services are cut, specialist units closed and staff morale damaged by the pay cuts announced this year – while patients still don’t feel they have much input into the service.

In our 1997 manifesto, we promised “all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation”, yet 2 million remain in poverty, and over 20,000 died from cold last year. The basic state pension is now worth less than one-seventh of average male earnings (it was worth one-quarter in 1979), and the Pension Credit is not claimed by nearly 40% of pensioners entitled.

We must immediately restore the earnings link that was broken by the Tories and increase the basic state pension to the Pension Credit level of £119 per week. It is a national disgrace that we have the worst state pension in Europe, and spend just half of the European average on our pensions system.

Of course, the main slogan of our 1997 campaign was ‘Education, education, education’ and there is no doubt that investment has gone in and standards have improved – yet, as in the health service, this New Labour obsession with privatisation and internal markets has wasted vast resources. Trust Schools and Academies reduce community involvement. PFI schemes mean that the school buildings are owned by private companies who charge extortionate fees which exclude local people from using the school as a community resource. A generation of students have come to know the Labour Party for top-up fees, which we expressly ruled out in our 2001 manifesto.

I am standing because we need to change our policies to reconnect with the needs of the British people, and so that we can rebuild the progressive coalition to defeat the Tories at the next election. My key pledges are:

Reducing inequality and poverty

  • A green energy policy based on renewable power sources
  • An end to privatisation in our public services
  • A peaceful and independent foreign policy
  • The restoration of civil liberties and trade union rights as part of a new constitutional settlement
  • John’s new book, Another World is Possible, a manifesto for 21st Century socialism, is available by going to his campaign website


    John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

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    The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

    With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

    Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

    Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

    Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

    Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

    The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

    In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

    The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

    So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

    — Jason Cowley, Editor 

    Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

    Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

    John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

    Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

    David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

    John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

    Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

    Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

    Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

    Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

    Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

    Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

    Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

    Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

    John Bew mourns the lost left

    Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

    Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

    David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

    This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times